ST. PETERSBURG — A wailing fire truck rounded the corner and a grinning Santa Claus hopped out. Five wide-eyed children clung to their parents. The youngest began to cry.
The bearded man was a welcome sight next to the charred walls and piles of blackened toys and furniture.
Two families had just lived through a nightmare at Edgewater Apartments, 3275 Pinellas Point Drive S. They lost nearly everything, including Christmas presents.
But as word of the fire spread, a community went to work making things better for the families: 26-year-old Stefanie Rich and her two children; 23-year-old Ashley Stafford, her fiance Ollie Flounary and their three kids.
At about 10:30 p.m. Monday, Rich's 1-year-old son was watching a children's program on TV when he got excited, bumped against the entertainment center and knocked over a lit candle, Rich said. The flames quickly fanned out of control.
"I couldn't believe how fast it happened," Rich said. "I ran to the hallway to get the fire extinguisher and it was already out of control."
Meanwhile, in the upstairs unit, Stafford smelled smoke. By the time she realized what was going on, black clouds were everywhere. She eventually had to drop her children — a 1-year-old boy, and two girls ages 2 and 6 — out of a window to a neighbor.
The scariest part of the fire lasted only minutes, and 15 residents who were affected got out safely. But by the next morning, the displaced families were still trying to piece together what had just happened, where they would go next, what to do about Christmas. On Tuesday, arrangements were being made for the families to move into different apartments on the property.
Behind the scenes, some in the community heard about the fire and wanted to make it easier on the parents.
A supervisor for the local Disabled American Veterans organization called the St. Petersburg Times, wanting to know where to take some gifts for the children. Ollie Flounary's supervisor and co-workers at Pure Air Control Services wanted to share their address (it's 4911 Creekside Drive, Suite C, in Clearwater) as a place to drop of gifts or donations for "a great employee" and his kids, said account manager Karen Aguirre.
And the firefighters themselves, who typically feel helpless after seeing families' homes ravaged, were thrilled to be able to do a little extra this time.
A St. Petersburg Fire Rescue team arranged for the family to return to the apartments about noon Tuesday. Family members were told the firefighters had a surprise for them. So they stood in front of their burned homes and waited.
A noisy red engine suddenly pulled up on the grass. Firefighters climbed out, along with Santa bearing bags of toys with genders and ages marked on them.
The bags of toys were left over from the firefighters' annual holiday toy drive, which provided toys to 200 foster families this year.
"This worked out perfect," said fire inspector Julie Hamilton, who organizes the toy drive.
Santa, who was actually fire inspector Michael Blank, couldn't remember another time when a fire involving children happened during the toy drive giveaway. In more than a dozen years of wearing the red suit, this one would be memorable, he said.
"This is what it's all about," he said.
As the children rummaged through their bags, pulling out dolls, trucks and interactive toys, their weary parents stood by and watched, looking a little shell-shocked.
"It still hasn't sunk in," Flounary said.
Emily Nipps can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8452.