SPRING HILL — On her second night sleeping in the house she and three other girlfriends had rented, 18-year-old Elsa Guarino woke about 1:30 a.m. Thursday to a screaming smoke detector.
Peeking out of the door of her bedroom, she saw a wall of flames engulfing another room inside the house. All she could think of was getting out.
The Nature Coast Technical High School senior managed to escape the blaze unharmed. Her three roommates, also Nature Coast High seniors, were not at home at the time.
The state Fire Marshal's Office, which is investigating the fire at 9010 McCormick St., has determined that arson is the cause. But the events leading up to the incident point to something even stranger.
On Tuesday, the night the girls moved in, they were suddenly overcome by the smell of gasoline. Spring Hill Fire Rescue responders could find no cause for the fumes and advised the teens to air out the house.
The next day, they noticed that several plants around the house had been damaged from something being spilled on them.
Following the fire Thursday, the girls noticed that one of the sliding glass doors in the back of the house had been removed and placed on a concrete pad behind the house. Also, the girls said they found a small pile of burned leaves inside a room in the house, and an empty gas can nearby.
Roommate Sheila Clements said dresser drawers inside a bedroom appeared to have had been rifled through.
"I felt I was in a bad dream," Clements, 18, said as she cleaned up.
The teens, two of whom declined to be identified, said they have no idea who would want to burn them out of their house.
Throughout Thursday morning, state arson investigators combed the ruins of the four-bedroom, two-bath concrete block house looking for clues while the four teens toted boxes and plastic bags filled with soot-covered items.
Investigators said damage to the home is estimated to be between $80,000 and $90,000.
Outside, the home's owner, Magalie Jean, sighed as she gazed at the blackened hulk of the house that she and her former husband built in 2006.
Jean, who lives in Tampa, said the dwelling had been vacant for about a month. She said the last renters left the place in such a mess that she had to replace the carpet and repaint the walls. She said she is still owed for two months' rent.
Jean said she visited the house on Saturday and noticed the garage door had been raised and she found a girl's bathing suit inside the home. The house has no swimming pool. A neighbor helped her secure the garage door.
"It was very strange, but I didn't think anything of it," she said. "Who in the world would want to do this?"
Logan Neill can be reached at email@example.com or 848-1435.