DUNEDIN — Clarence Arrington came home from work Tuesday and started to make dinner. He threw some chicken in the oven and put some grease in a pot on the back burner to make French fries later.
Then he left for a walk with his wife and 4-year-old son, Ethan.
They returned home 20 minutes later to an awful surprise.
"I walked in the door and the kitchen was on fire," said Arrington, a retired Army major who works as an instructor at Sarasota Military Academy.
Arrington, 44, had accidentally turned the burner on before they left the house, he said.
He tried to use a fire extinguisher, but the flames were too intense.
"The only thing I could grab is my son's fish aquarium," home to a goldfish and two turtles, Arrington said.
But there was another item inside that was much more important: an American flag.
"I tried to go back in to get it, but it was too hot," he said.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Arrington's unit got a call to help remove bodies from the Pentagon, he said. After that grueling task was completed, Arrington escorted a general to gather some personal items. He saw a flag balled up in the corner and asked for permission to retrieve it.
Arrington has saved that flag ever since. He framed it and hung it in the living room. He hoped to hand it down to family members for generations.
"It's very sentimental," Arrington said. "I'll always have a story to tell my grandkids."
A little after 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, firefighters responded to the fire at 2033 Ridgecrest Drive in unincorporated Pinellas County.
Arrington asked firefighters one favor, to retrieve his flag.
"It was the only thing they brought out," Arrington said. "The frame got burnt, but the flag is still intact."
He was grateful. "Those flags are considered battle flags because they're part of terrorist attack," he said.
Next-door neighbor Kara Thomas was initially concerned for her own family. Her house was filling with smoke and her 4-year-old daughter uses oxygen. Thomas was afraid that might start a fire.
But fire crews were able to contain the flames to the Arringtons' kitchen and the area just above it, said Bill McElligott, Dunedin Fire Rescue division chief.
Outside, the golden, stucco ranch-style house looks like it fared okay. A window near the back of the home is boarded up and the wall is charred above it. But the exterior appearance is deceiving. McElligott said much of the home sustained heat and smoke damage estimated at $100,000 for the structure and $40,000 for its contents.
The Arringtons were renting the house, which is owned by Dina Pontikos of Tarpon Springs. Its taxable value is $138,674, according to the Pinellas County Property Appraiser.
The Red Cross helped the Arringtons find temporary accommodations. For now, they're staying at a hotel. Arrington also has a 17-year-old, son Clarence Jr. He was at wrestling practice during the fire.
"We're just taking it day by day," Arrington said.
Arrington's wife, Amie, said the past couple of days have been stressful, but she knows they'll be okay.
"Our family is safe," she said. "That's all that matters."
McElligott said the fire at the Arringtons' home was the second area fire in two days involving unattended cooking materials. The other was in the Chesapeake Apartments on Cumberland Circle.
McElligott said one of the best ways to prevent a stovetop fire is to have a solid pan and a tight-fitting lid that can be used to extinguish small fires. He also cautioned people to never leave cooking items unattended.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155.