ST. PETERSBURG — Susan Karpus squeezed her partner's wallet in her left hand and his glasses in her right. Sweat and tears mixed together on her wrinkled white cheeks. Squatting on a curb, she stared at the spot in the parking lot where she had told Jose Alvarado he wouldn't die.
"He was all burned up," said Karpus, 62. "His skin was falling off."
She and Alvarado have been a couple for 15 years. They live together in a second-story apartment at 511 Highland St. N in St. Petersburg. Friday afternoon, Alvarado, 58, was helping a friend move furniture out of the complex's basement when, authorities say, they bumped into and possibly broke a gas valve.
A woman from Progress Energy happened to be auditing the building's electrical use at the same time. She smelled gas and insisted the men get away from the basement.
The men, both carrying lit cigarettes, walked back toward the building.
"She begged them not to go," said Jerry Burns, who lives across the street. "They didn't listen.
"As soon as they touched that sidewalk — boom — both of them fell back," Burns said. "It was like something from the sun blew up. It was one big ball of fire."
Alvarado, his right arm ablaze, stumbled across the street and collapsed in a parking lot. The other man, whose name was not available, was also burned, though not as severely.
After the explosion, he sat in the parking lot, still holding his cigarette.
Burns leaned over Alvarado. "Don't go out, Jose," Burns told him. "Don't go out."
Karpus was upstairs watching TV when she heard what sounded like a firecracker exploding. She rushed down to find Alvarado sprawled across the pavement.
Both men were flown to Tampa General Hospital. Alvarado was in critical condition late Friday night; the other man's condition was not available.
An hour later, Karpus wandered the sidewalk around her home, waiting for answers. The couple's 3-year-old yorkie, Charlie, trailed just behind her. She asked strangers for hugs. She told them how kind Alvarado was. How many friends he had.
"I love him so much," she said. "He's the world to me."
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.