CLEARWATER — Catherine Stephens was in her bedroom petting her beloved cat, Ashley, on Tuesday morning when neighbor Hedley Hatch stopped by like he does every morning.
Stephens starts each day with breakfast with her buddy, neighbors said.
But there wasn't anything routine about how Tuesday morning unfolded.
Hatch noticed that Stephens' yellow home at 1211 Carolyn Lane was on fire. He summoned Stephens to her door and escorted the 71-year-old widow out of the thick, black smoke.
"He inadvertently saved her life," said Cliff Pugh of Kustom Disaster Recovery and Restoration in Clearwater.
The home, just east of Douglas Avenue and south of Sunset Point Road, was engulfed by flames when firefighters arrived. More than two dozen units responded.
The home was at least "75 percent" destroyed, said Pugh, who was coordinating cleanup after the fire. The cause of the blaze was not immediately released.
A Clearwater firefighter sustained minor injuries battling the flames, which took about 20 minutes to get under control, officials said. The firefighter, who was not identified, was treated at Morton Plant Hospital and released, officials said.
On Tuesday afternoon, Kustom workers were busy pulling belongings from Stephens' home to see what could be saved. Stephens was too tired to talk to a reporter, but she was surrounded by friends and neighbors as she sat across the street in a neighbor's yard with her cane at her side.
"This is such a close-knit area," said neighbor Ron Walker, 61.
Walker said he was outside his home talking to another neighbor Tuesday morning when he heard noises that sounded like gunshots.
"Pop, pop, pop," he said. "I saw the flames, and all of a sudden, that's when the big explosion happened. It was totally engulfed in flames in two minutes."
It was unclear Tuesday what caused the explosions.
Pugh said Stephens' husband died last year, and she has been struggling to get her widow's pension from the Navy.
But Tuesday afternoon Stephens had no shortage of support in her neighborhood. Kids coming home from school rode up on their bikes to check on her. Other neighbors kept her company as a truck pulled in with fencing that will be installed around the property to protect it.
"When you have this kind of neighborhood, it helps ease the pain a little," Walker said.
Rita Farlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4157.