TAMPA — Ryan Loflin's heart is still pounding. He still hears the dying screams of the woman next door, still sees the toddler's face as she swung like a pendulum, dangling over his head and outside a second-story window. On the ground, Loflin braced himself, hands outstretched. The man holding the little girl had lost his grip, but grabbed her by the leg. And there she was, 16-month-old niece Tiyana Samuel, staring at him. She was smiling.
Both of the most pivotal moments in 25-year-old Loflin's life involve him cradling a baby girl.
Two years ago in a hospital in northern Florida, when Loflin held newborn daughter Raelyn for the first time, something changed inside him.
The man who had been arrested for drug possession, who was on probation, hadn't planned to be a father.
But here she was, perfect. I made that, he thought.
He promised her he would "man up" and be responsible, like his own father.
Raelyn lived with her mother in Tampa while Loflin lived in Pasco County. He recently moved into his sister's South Tampa apartment to be closer to his daughter.
Last weekend was the first the toddler had spent at the apartment. They danced and sang. They spent Saturday at the beach. Then, they nodded off.
Loflin was startled from sleep about 1 a.m. Sunday, when the woman next door screamed and banged on the wall.
The rest happened fast.
After a futile attempt at putting out the fire with sink water, Loflin grabbed his daughter, ran through the flames and kicked through the door. Part of the ceiling collapsed behind him.
Outside, cradling his daughter, he saw the woman next door in the window. She was screaming, begging for help.
"Jump!" he shouted.
Loflin shielded his daughter's face, hoping Raelyn wouldn't remember.
Then he realized his sister, her baby and a friend were still in the apartment. He screamed. They didn't answer.
Putting Raelyn down, he ran to the door, but found it blocked by flames. As the fire poured out the roof, he saw movement from his sister's bedroom window.
Standing below the window with his daughter crying at his feet, Loflin reached up and caught his niece.
• • •
On Monday, Tampa Fire officials released the name of the woman who died. Kathryn Alm was 48 years old. She left behind a daughter, a sister, three brothers, a stepfather and a mother.
Loflin credits Alm for waking his family when no smoke alarm did. Her screams saved five people, he said. His sister and her friend escaped through the window after saving his niece, all because Alm gave them time.
"If she wasn't here, we would've died," he said.
Alm's 26-year-old daughter, Jessica, said she was proud of her mother for that.
"I'm so happy that all of them got out safely. I wish she could have, too," she said.
Jessica Alm said her mother lived alone and felt like she had all she needed. She had a job as a manager at Circle K and a bunch of friends, who happened to be cops. She called one of them "Copsicle."
"She had a sense of humor like nobody I've ever known," the daughter said. "It was really a dry kind of wit."
Kathryn Alm experienced an unimaginable loss in 2001, when her teenage son, Tony, died in a car crash.
She stayed close to her daughter. They went shopping every weekend. Today, Jessica will begin planning her mother's funeral.
Loflin can't imagine how Alm's family feels. His mind keeps racing to the fire. What if he had awakened sooner? If he had a fire extinguisher? If he had acted faster?
Officials are still working to determine what caused the fire.
"To anybody who is in a fire in their home, just run," Loflin said. "Don't try to get anything. Just get your family."
• • •
Loflin's heart is still pounding so hard that doctors kept him in a hospital bed Monday.
The fire could have aggravated a previous condition. Or the beat could have accelerated from smoke inhalation and stress.
Either way, his heart has gotten no rest.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.