BROOKSVILLE — Dan Smith planted a bird of paradise in the front yard of his mother's double-wide mobile home, then jabbed his shovel into the ground. He was hot and tired. He needed a break.
It was Tuesday evening, just before 7. Smith walked up the front steps and got a Gatorade from the kitchen. His mother, 74-year-old Barbara "Barby" Smith, sat on the couch watching television.
"One of them women's channels," he recalled Wednesday.
Then, Smith heard an explosion.
It came from the shed underneath the carport attached to their home. He ran to the door. The metal knob was so hot it scorched his hand. He pushed the door open and saw the flames tearing through the aluminum roof.
An electrical malfunction in the shed, authorities say, sparked the blaze and ignited eight propane tanks stored inside. People throughout the neighborhood heard the blasts. One tank landed a block away.
Smith, 52, had lived with and cared for his mother at 5122 Newcross St., in the Clover Leaf Farms retirement community, since she suffered third-degree burns in a cooking accident eight years ago. Mrs. Smith still struggles to walk without help. As the flames engulfed the building, Smith pulled her from the couch and dragged her out the front door. The heat blistered the back of his neck and both ears. It singed the hair from his forearms.
"He saved his momma," neighbor Bernie Pickering said Wednesday morning, staring at the charred black skeleton that was once the Smiths' home.
Smith, who does lawn maintenance for a living, has been called a hero. Friends have collected money for the family, given them new clothes and, for now, found them a new place to live.
Everything the Smiths owned — furniture, family photographs, a mass of Boston Red Sox gear — was destroyed. The fire was so intense it incinerated their washer and dryer. Only the chassis remained from their two golf carts. The vinyl siding had melted away like wax.
The rubble still smelled of burned plastic just before 11 a.m. Wednesday. Smith stood across the street wearing blue jeans, a T-shirt and a hat his mother had bought him from the Red Dog Saloon in Juneau, Alaska.
Friends told him he should see a doctor about his burns. Smith said he was fine.
Neighbor Lore Bain pulled up in a lime green golf cart.
"You need anything?" she asked.
"I could use a cigarette," he said.
Bain handed him an L&M.
"How's your mom?"
"She's all shook up."
Mrs. Smith had lived in the mobile home for more than 20 years. She belongs to the Red Hat Society and plays cards with friends twice a week. She eats breakfast almost every day at Rooster's Cafe in Brooksville.
Smith isn't sure what he and his mother will do now.
"It's going to take awhile to get over this," he said. "We lost everything we had."
The fire claimed nearly every foot of the home except for one corner. On Wednesday, an untouched American flag still flapped from a wooden post at the end of their carport.
Smith wasn't sure what that meant, if anything. For at least a moment, though, it still made him smile.
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432.