NEW PORT RICHEY — Approaching what's left of the toy shop, the ground becomes black and uneven. What feels like charred gravel underfoot, Tom Loughlin points out, are actually tiny wheels. Thousands of them.
Those wheels were intended to be fitted to little wooden trucks and planes and pull-along puppies with leashes made of string. Then they would have been donated to children in hospitals, care centers and ambulances around Tampa Bay. For years, in the shop behind Loughlin's house, a group of mostly retirees turned blocks of donated wood into the intricate trinkets.
But Wednesday morning, the shop burned down. Firefighters said it started with an electrical short likely triggered by an animal chewing wires.
The ToyMakers of New Port Richey spent three days a week here, from 8 a.m. to noon, churning out toys. Four times a year, they'd deliver 5,000 of them to St. Joseph's Hospitals, the Shriners, the pediatric unit of Morton Plant Hospital and several others. Since starting in 1982, they have built and donated 320,000 toys.
"You could build a major house from all the wood we planed and cut up," said Loughlin, 75.
Their tools were here. Drills, saws, band saws, planers. One $4,000 planer was just donated to the ToyMakers and hadn't been used yet. By Wednesday afternoon, it was all ash.
Loughlin said the ToyMakers still have enough of a back stock of toys to make two more donations, but production has stopped for now. Since the fire was mentioned on TV news, he said, a few donations have already come in.
He pointed to a brass sign hanging on a support beam in front of the shop. One of its hangers had snapped, but it had otherwise been untouched in the blaze.
"I know that sounds corny," he said, "but I think it's a sign that we're coming back."