CLEARWATER — There are many house fires in Pinellas County every year.
But the blaze on Eldridge Street early Saturday seems to touch people's hearts in a way others have not.
Perhaps it was the thought of a little girl walking out of her house, her body in flames. Perhaps it was the dozen members of her family displaced by the fire.
Whatever the reason, there has been an outpouring of support from the community in response to the injuries suffered by 9-year-old Makeila Pressley. People want to donate money, clothes and toys to help the family.
Amir Ardebily, 44, said he plans to donate $1,000 to Makeila and the dozen relatives who have lost their home and are now staying with family.
"I just couldn't imagine how the mother feels seeing her daughter burning like that,'' he said. "It broke my heart.''
He said he can relate to Makeila's mother, Davana Pressley, 25, because he has an 18-month-old daughter who was born with health problems that have required several surgeries.
"Every time she is smiling, we are smiling,'' he said. "Every time she is sick, we are sick.''
Ardebily, who owns Amir Academy of Martial Arts in St. Petersburg, said he also plans to take up a collection at the Battle of Tampa Bay VIII Night of Champions amateur muay thai kickboxing event on March 8 at the St. Petersburg Hilton.
Closer to home, Joe Marshall, president of the non-profit Greenwood Panthers youth football program, where Makeila is a cheerleader, also is organizing a donation drive.
Marshall, 45, said he has known her uncle, Lester Nelson Jr., who helped save her life and his father, Lester Nelson Sr., for years and said they are a "good family, a close family.''
"What we want to do is let the family know they are not out there by themselves,'' Marshall said. "We feel their pain also.''
He said Makeila, a third-grader at Largo Central Elementary, is an excellent, charismatic cheerleader. He wants to help "bring normalcy'' to her and her family by supplying them with the basic necessities and shelter.
Dorothy Garner, 43, of Tampa is the assistant manager for Labor Ready, a temporary staffing company where Lester Nelson Sr. has worked as a van driver for three years. She is donating $25 to the cause.
She said she doesn't know Lester Nelson Sr. personally, but she knows about loss. She lost her mother, brother and father in less than two years.
"Anytime your loved one (hurts) you start to look at things differently,'' she said.
At about midnight Saturday, a fire sparked by a cigarette left in a closet erupted in the back bedroom where Makeila had gone to sleep in the cooling breeze of a fan. The house, which is five blocks north of Drew Street, just east of Myrtle Avenue, sustained $55,000 in damage.
There were 13 relatives and friends in the house at the time and all were able to escape quickly but the little girl.
"I was out there knowing she was in there and I was going crazy,'' said Davana Pressley. "I watched her walk out (of the bedroom) and go into my mom's room. I ran in. Her hair was on fire. I was patting her head and got it out.''
Then she saw that Makeila's stomach area and legs were also on fire. She took her outside and yelled "Roll! Roll!''
Makeila did and the flames went out. She got up and "started panicking,'' her mother said.
"She was telling me she was burning,'' Davana Pressley said. "I kept telling her, 'Baby, you're going to be okay.' ''
But most of Makeila's skin was hanging off and every time she looked down at it she became overwhelmed by dread. She told her mom she was scared. "When I looked at her knee, it looked like it was boiling, with bubbles like a boiling pot (on the stove),'' Davana Pressley said.
Makeila was able to ease herself onto gurney and was rushed to Tampa General Hospital. The next day, she was flown by private jet to Shriners Hospitals for Children in Cincinnati. The transportation and care she will receive from the Shriners are free.
Burned over more than 54 percent of her body, she has undergone surgeries Monday and Tuesday to remove dead skin and graft healthy skin onto her injured chest, arms and legs. Her mother said she faces additional operations on Thursday and Friday.
Although she is on a respirator, she can communicate. She nodded yes when a nurse asked he if she remembered the fire. She nodded no when the nurse asked her if she was in pain.
When her mother asked Makeila if she liked the book, Stuart Little, she was reading her, the little girl nodded yes.
"I'm so proud of her,'' Davana Pressley said.
Eileen Schulte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.