It was supposed to be Mike Kuzma's last trip North for a while. A snowbird who had split time between Largo and upstate Pennsylvania for a few years, Kuzma had decided to join his wife, Gayle, as a full-time Florida resident.
He just needed to make one more 1,200-mile journey to Sullivan County, just south of the Pennsylvania-New York state line, to tidy up his late father's house and bring back a few things.
Kuzma, 50, didn't make it back, though. He died in a fire that consumed the Sullivan County house early last Wednesday morning, an accident that authorities think was started by a wood-burning stove Kuzma likely used that night.
Two Florida Highway Patrol troopers delivered the bad news to Gayle Kuzma in Largo.
On Monday afternoon, she sat in her living room next to a table covered in pictures of herself and her husband of 23 years (their anniversary would have been next month). She has a tattoo on her right calf of a rose with two white sashes draped across it. One says "Gayle," the other "Michael."
"It's hard to see someone say, 'Honey, I'm going to go fix up the house,' and then, not, ... " she trailed off. "And you just have state troopers come to the house."
Together, the Kuzmas owned and ran an auto parts shop in Allentown, Pa., that he inherited from his father. They closed the shop and retired in 2002. They started visiting the Tampa Bay area in the mid 1990s, when they bought a timeshare in North Redington Beach. In 2008, they bought their home in Largo.
Mike Kuzma was a master machinist who could take anything apart and put it back together, his wife said. He was a big man who liked eating, NASCAR and spending days at the beach with her.
He also loved to hunt; Mike's picture on Facebook shows him smiling and standing over the stuffed head of a large buck he shot in Missouri.
He kept that head in the Sullivan County home. Gayle Kuzma recalled with a smile Monday how hard it had been to fit its antlers through the door.
Eldredsville fire Chief Chuck Bellerby was part of the crew that arrived at 3:30 a.m. June 15 to find the small house engulfed in flames. The ceiling had already collapsed, and wires that had been running to the home lay on the grass, still sparking, Bellerby said. Firefighters were forced to wait for 30 minutes until the power company could turn off the electricity.
"It was tragic," said Bellerby, who recalled meeting Kuzma by chance a few years ago. "There was nothing we could do."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or [email protected]