It felt unreal to Michael Brown.
The driver-operator from Clearwater Fire Station 48 was trying to coax an elderly resident to climb over the balcony railing of her third-story condominium as flames ripped through the building Saturday morning.
Brown felt his adrenaline pumping. The roar of the fire, the wailing sirens and residents' calls for help made it tough to concentrate on the radio instructions in his ear. His eyes stung from the heat and smoke.
"You have to trust me," he told the woman, Joan, as she stood shaking on her balcony.
She wanted to go back inside her condo, but it was filled with black smoke.
"We have to go now," Brown said, using a chair to help her step over the railing and descend a 30-foot ladder to safety.
Brown and about 100 other firefighters responded to a roaring blaze at Inverness Condominiums, a 55-and-older community near Westfield Countryside Mall, shortly after 2:30 a.m. Saturday. They rescued six people from the burning building, which is now uninhabitable.
"They were scared beyond belief," Brown said of the residents. "They're not used to climbing ladders, especially at 2:30 in the morning with smoke all around."
Firefighters from Dunedin, Safety Harbor, Oldsmar, Palm Harbor, Tarpon Springs and Pinellas Park joined Clearwater firefighters in rescuing residents and controlling the blaze. Their efforts were "flawless," said Lt. Bill Wargin of Truck 48.
"I couldn't be more proud of my crew," he said. "Every crew, everybody there, worked hard."
Wargin and a partner searched the condo building, crawling on their hands and knees and forcing doors open. They found residents on the floors of their rooms and alerted Brown and another firefighter to their locations.
The hallways filled with thick black smoke, making it impossible to see farther than a foot away — "if you're lucky," Wargin said.
"It's not like a Hollywood movie, where you can see everything," he said. "Fire alarms are going off, people are screaming, you can hear hose lines flowing and people breaking glass."
While Wargin's crew and another squad rescued residents, Lt. Jevon Graham of Station 50 pulled hose lines through the hallways of the building.
"It's confining," Graham said. "The fire has been going so long, it's virtually an oven."
Half of the 35-unit building was destroyed, and its roof is partly gone, said Elizabeth Watts, the city's public safety spokeswoman. Investigators determined the cause of the fire was an electrical malfunction, she said.
About 30 residents were unable to return to their homes after the fire. The American Red Cross provided hotel rooms to those who could not stay with family members, spokeswoman Janet McGuire said.
On Sunday, as the crew of Truck 48 revisited the site of the fire, Brown was approached by Joan, one of the women he rescued from the building.
"You weren't kidding," he said she told him. "I really was going to die if I went back in there."
She and her daughter thanked the firefighters for saving her life. Another victim's family stopped by the station, bringing homemade cookies and cake and taking pictures with the firefighters.
"It put a huge smile on my face," Brown said. "It's a feeling I've never had before, and I'll never forget."
Katie Park can be reached at (727) 445-4154 or [email protected]