PALM HARBOR — The fire started early Monday in the back stairwell of unit No. 99 of the Harbor Club Downs apartments. It was just past 5 a.m.
The sun wasn't out, but the second-story living room of Daniel Robert Scharaldi's apartment was flickering with an orange glow. The walls and roof were ablaze.
Scharaldi, 25, was asleep in his bedroom with his son, Devan Burchett, 4. He was awakened, he said, by the grace of God.
"I heard some crackling," Scharaldi said. "Realized that my apartment's on fire."
The young father scooped up his son and ran for the front door. But he couldn't make it outside.
"Went out the front door, and flames, just — whoosh — completely engulfed everything. Slammed the door shut," he said.
Smoke was filling the room.
He made his escape via the only other door to the outside — the second-story patio.
The plan was to lower Devan to the ground, but the boy was afraid. He grabbed onto the railing as Scharaldi jumped.
"He was afraid I was going to drop him. He grabbed onto the bars and was holding on strong," Scharaldi said.
But Devan let go, and his father caught him.
They ran to the safety of a neighboring apartment building. Behind them, everything else was consumed by the flames, including fish, a turtle, a rabbit and his dog, Daisy.
"I just wanted to get my son out of there," he said.
Scharaldi said he and his son are staying with his mother, but beyond that, he is taking life hour by hour. So are many of the 16 other people displaced by the fire that destroyed eight units and damaged eight others in the large, well-kept apartment complex at 455 Alt. U.S. 19 S.
Bobby and Kelly Hallock stood Monday morning with their 14-month-old daughter, Emma, in front of the crumbling remains of the building. Memories of their escape were still fresh.
"I was having a dream when the smoke woke me up," Kelly Hallock said. "I dreamt I was on fire."
The 500-square-foot, second-floor apartment was filled with black smoke. She grabbed Emma, and she and her husband felt their way through.
"We couldn't even see, the smoke was so thick," she said.
Once out, her husband wanted to go back for their dog, Roxy.
Firefighters soon pulled up. One ran in and saved the dog.
"In a daze, we watched it burn," she said. "The clothes, the furniture, I don't care about that. It's the memories."
The couple lost most of their belongings. "This is all that we have: two cars and our lives," Bobby Hallock said.
The American Red Cross is working with the displaced people, said spokeswoman Janet McGuire. She said three of the people were set up in a hotel, and the rest were staying with family members or friends.
The displaced residents received debit cards to buy items such as clothes and shoes. Some of the residents ran outside in their pajamas. Bobby Hallock didn't even have a shirt on.
First responders could see the smoke from a quarter mile away, said Liz Monforti, a spokeswoman for Palm Harbor Fire Rescue. At least 27 units responded to the four-alarm blaze.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office arson unit is investigating the cause of the fire, but Sheriff's Office spokesman Tom Nestor said it could be several days before the cause is determined.
Dominick Tao can be reached at (727) 580-2951 or firstname.lastname@example.org.