TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham stood Sunday in front of a run-down, burned-out Seminole Heights house.
Remorse bore down on him not as a politician, but as a brother.
"We all feel terribly, terribly guilty," Higginbotham said, "thinking, what more could we have done for Laura?"
Laura Grumney, his stepsister, died in that house Saturday afternoon as flames from a fire consumed it. She had dashed back into the blazing home several times until firefighters say Grumney, 56, was overwhelmed by smoke and fire.
The cause of the fire had not been determined, but investigators said it was accidental.
They found her body in the back doorway of the bungalow at 5609 N Seminole Ave., where she lived alone.
"No one understands why she went back into a burning house," Higginbotham said.
He knows that poor judgment stems from her years-long battle with mental illness. Her family — including Higginbotham and his wife, Devon — pitched in to keep her on track. But her death left them questioning whether they had done enough.
Grumney had been a dreamer, Higginbotham said, a loving mother who years ago started a gourmet dog biscuit company with her son, Barclay.
Then a car crash "shattered her life," he said.
Her injuries turned Grumney into a sometimes-homeless woman with pain management and drug problems, Higginbotham said.
Grumney went to rehab last year and came back refreshed. But she didn't always take the medication that could have helped her manage, Higginbotham said, and her behavior soon reminded her family that she needed continued support.
"Some people just can't get life organized," he said.
Family members paid Grumney's utility bills, and she received assistance from Meals on Wheels and the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.
It wasn't enough. She seemed stuck in a cycle of being okay, then letting things fall apart.
Last Tuesday, Higginbotham stopped by the house to check on Grumney.
"She didn't come to the door," he said. "I'm certain she was home."
He left feeling frustrated.
A next-door neighbor recalled Grumney as a troubled woman: "She would never help herself," said Ann Hendry, 78.
When the fire started Saturday, Hendry called 911 and looked over the fence that separated her house from Grumney's.
"I yelled and yelled at her to get out of the house," Hendry said. "But she didn't."
On Sunday, pieces of the tall wooden fence lay busted on the ground, revealing the charred house behind it. The sharp smell of smoke still stung the air, with the shrill of a smoke alarm still sounding overhead.
Higginbotham speculated Grumney tried to put out the fire herself. On the back steps, a green garden hose trailed over soot, partly shriveled near the blackened doorway. Slung over the fence, the hose ran from a house across the street even before the fire, because Grumney's water had been turned off.
Her house had two other entrances, but Grumney chose to go in where the fire was worst.
Maybe, Higginbotham hoped, some good can come from his family's tragedy.
"No family is immune to issues of mental illness," he said, "and they shouldn't be embarrassed or ashamed of it."
Stephanie Wang can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.