By the time Pamela Sansom arrived at the charred ruins of her home, her older son's family had made it out alive. The next precious thing? An urn with the ashes of her younger son, George Anthony Stewart Jr. "It was bad enough to lose him," she said. "I couldn't lose his ashes, too." She didn't. Firefighters found the urn on a charred cedar chest full of undamaged keepsakes. But the blaze destroyed virtually everything else in the house, plus her husband's 2002 Dodge Ram pickup truck in the driveway. "Everything's gone," said Sansom, 51, who works as a Hillsborough County school bus driver. The few possessions the family managed to recover intact included the cedar chest, some family photos and the urn.
The fire seriously injured 25-year-old Erica Stewart, Sansom's daughter-in-law. It also killed two dogs owned by Sansom's son, as well as two dogs and a parrot that Sansom owned. A fifth dog, Sansom's Yorkie-poo, Misty, somehow survived.
Hillsborough County Fire Rescue was called to the house at 14903 19th St. N at 1:15 a.m. Oct. 9. By the time firefighters arrived, Sansom's son, 28-year-old Joshua Stewart, his wife, Erica, and their 10-month-old son, Sean, had escaped.
All three were taken to Tampa General Hospital, where Joshua and Sean were treated for minor injuries and released Saturday. Erica had breathed in smoke, burning her esophagus.
"I'm just thankful I'm alive," she said in a weak voice during a telephone interview from her intensive care bed Wednesday.
The fire was under control within 30 minutes, but the house and truck were a complete loss, fire officials said. The one-story concrete block home, which sits on nearly an acre, had a market value of $75,311, according to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's Office.
The cause of the fire remained undetermined at midweek because of the extent of the damage, though fire officials have not found anything suspicious, Fire Rescue spokesman Ray Yeakley said.
Sansom said the home and truck were insured. The Red Cross gave the family three nights in a hotel and money for clothes and groceries, and on Monday they met with insurance company representatives.
The fire broke out last week while Sansom and her husband, Raymond, were on a camping trip in Dade City with Joshua's 4-year-old son, Seth.
Joshua said he had fallen asleep watching TV on the screened-in porch but was roused by the sensation of something tugging on his leg.
"I woke up to the porch on fire," he said. He grabbed a garden hose, but the fire was spreading too fast. He couldn't get to the side door from the porch into the house, so he ran around to bang on the back door.
That awoke Erica, who was sleeping with the baby on her chest. She said she didn't know the porch was on fire. She thought Joshua was at the side door, so she opened that.
"I just got hit with all the smoke," she said. "It took all the breath out of me."
She had been sleeping with a blanket over the baby, and that apparently protected him from breathing in the smoke.
The Stewarts, their two sons and their two dogs had been staying at Sansom's home because both were out of work and had been unable to pay their power bill, Joshua said.
Erica had lost her job selling life insurance after inadvertently taking too many days under the Family and Medical Leave Act, she said. She took the days to care for Seth, who has a vascular disease, and for maternity leave after the birth of her younger son.
Joshua said he had not worked since dislocating his left knee, an injury that required surgery, while working as a landscaper about a year and a half ago.
And the whole family has been hit hard by the murder of Joshua's little brother, George, two years ago.
George and Brittani Key Stewart were married in February 2007 but separated a month later. She began a relationship with Timothy Blackwelder in the months that followed. By November, she had taken out a restraining order against Blackwelder.
On Dec. 7, 2007, Blackwelder confronted George and Brittani Stewart at a home on W Sitka Street and killed George with a gunshot to the heart. Blackwelder eventually was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison.
On a 911 call played during the trial, George identified Blackwelder by name and screamed in pain, "He just shot me!" After hearing his brother's cries, Joshua Stewart lunged at Blackwelder but was stopped by bailiffs.
Last week, he said he felt his brother's presence again, this time beyond the ashes in that urn.
"I could have sworn I felt somebody tugging at my leg," he said. "I really do think my brother was there. ... I feel like he gave us another chance."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3403.