TAMPA — Florence White couldn't sit anywhere in her South Tampa home without the menagerie nearby, curled up on her lap or by her feet.
Even walking to the bathroom, she could count on at least some of her six cats and the dog — a pitbull-lab mix named Charlie — padding along behind her.
Now, all but one are gone, victims of a kitchen fire that has left White clinging to a 7-year-old calico named Ruby who was saved through emergency medical treatment but who may never recover her sight.
It all happened so fast.
White was cooking on the stove when she got distracted. Once she discovered the fire, she worked to put it out then checked on her grown children. They were okay. The animals were not.
"I blame myself for not saving them," White said. "Of course I was thinking about my son and daughters; human life is more important than animal life, but they were still my family."
White gave this account of the incident:
Around 5 p.m. Monday, she was making egg rolls for her son and daughter when she received a phone call from another son, asking her to look for some important paperwork in her bedroom.
The first she learned anything was wrong was a few minutes later when her children shouted that there was a fire in the kitchen.
Her first instinct was to stop the flames from spreading. She burned her fingers trying to turn off the stove, then grabbed a hose from outside and managed to douse the flames just before Tampa Fire Rescue arrived.
The grease fire spread quickly throughout the five-bedroom house, causing an estimated $25,000 in property damage, firefighters told her.
At the suggestion of the first responders, some of whom escorted her, White grabbed her surviving cat Ruby and headed north to the BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital off Busch Boulevard and Himes Avenue.
White has rented her home for nine years and works at a warehouse store, so she couldn't afford the $3,000 that Ruby's treatment would cost. A charity that helps with pet bills, Frankie's Friends, stepped in.
Ruby had respiratory problems from smoke inhalation and went blind from the lack of oxygen to her brain, said emergency care specialist Dr. John Gicking. Whether she will regain her sight is unknown, Gicking said, but it shouldn't slow her down much.
"Animals don't have that psychological hangup that people get after a loss; they live in the moment," Gicking said. "A blind cat is a fine cat."
While Ruby underwent oxygen treatments, White scrolled through pictures of the fire damage on her phone. At one point, she stopped on a photo she had taken of her dead pets, surrounded by burned furniture and soaked trinkets from a life filled with the happy chaos of children and their animals.
"I kissed them all over and over again, asking them to wake up, calling all their names, telling them, 'Mommy is waiting,' " she said through tears.
Finally, on Tuesday afternoon, a vet tech came around the corner with Ruby in her arms. The calico's mewing gradually quieted as White stroked her, crooning, "It's okay, I'm so glad to see you, Mommy's here."
White wasn't sure where she and her children will stay as her rental home undergoes renovations that are expected to take about a month.
Her 56th birthday was Wednesday.
"This is my gift," she said with a smile, holding Ruby close. "Getting her through is my gift."
Contact Libby Baldwin at lbaldwin@tampabay,com. Follow @LibBaldwin