CLEARWATER — When Derek Ayers opened his eyes Saturday morning, he saw a room full of smoke and flames crawling up the center of the full-size bed he shared with his wife, Carol.
It was her panicked nudge that wrenched him from sleep and propelled him to his feet. The flames had singed his arm.
He found a fire extinguisher, but couldn't get it to work. He ran to the bathroom at the back of the house to wet a towel to throw on the fire, but when he turned to run back to the bedroom thick smoke left him unable to see.
Minutes later, after Ayers ran out the back door, the raging blaze ripped through the home at 911 Engman St.
Carol Ayers, 48, and the couple's 28-year-old son, Virgil Toomer, also fled the house after going back and forth between the bedroom and the kitchen sink, throwing pitchers of water on the flames. Flames scorched the end of Carol's nose.
They called 911 at 7:21 a.m. Saturday, watching the blaze send tufts of smoke out the windows as it spread into the attic.
Firefighters arrived soon after and extinguished the fire. An initial investigation indicates a space heater may have caused the fire, Clearwater Fire and Rescue officials said. The fire did not appear to be suspicious in nature.
The investigation is ongoing.
"When I think about it, I get sick," said Derek Ayers, 49, who lives on disability. His wife works as a medical caregiver for an assisted living facility.
They had no insurance. Everything they owned is gone. "Right now we don't really know what we're going to do," he said.
Neighbors gathered to provide the family clothes and shoes as firefighters worked to put out the blaze.
The American Red Cross paid to board the family in a hotel for three days. After that, they think they will move into Ayers' daughter's apartment. But they can't stay there for long.
Derek Ayers said the space heater's electrical cord caught the carpet on fire.
Such fires are not uncommon this time of year in Florida, when colder temperatures force some to use electric heaters.
"Typically when we see cold weather, we see an increased chance of fires from space heaters," said Elizabeth Watts, Clearwater's public safety spokeswoman.
Watts recommended that people using space heaters create a 3-foot safety zone between the heater and other objects. The devices should never be used near bedspreads, drapes or other potentially flammable items.
Fire officials also recommend that heating equipment should be inspected at least once a year.
Times staff writer Danny Valentine contributed to this report. Dan Sullivan can be reached at (727) 893-8321 or [email protected]