BRANDON — Early Sunday morning, Josh Ettling counted the seconds between lightning and thunder. One Mississippi, two Mississippi — he couldn't even get through that without being cut off by a boom.
Ettling, 23, wanted to go back to bed. He could put his chocolate Labrador, Nico, under the covers to hide the frightened dog's eyes so they both could sleep through the storm.
But a light switch zapped his fingers when he flipped it. Minutes later, he smelled smoke. Outside the second-floor bedroom blinds, all he saw was orange.
"My apartment's on fire," he told a 911 dispatcher. Ettling says he was put on hold, then advised: Get out.
Ettling and his neighbors were driven out of their apartments by an early-morning fire that may have been caused by lightning, authorities said.
Just before 5 a.m., Hillsborough County Fire Rescue received a report of a roof on fire at the Charleston Landings Apartments, 934 Delaney Circle. Heavy smoke and fire could be seen from a distance.
Fire crews found the roof and attic of the two-story, wood-frame building heavily involved.
After firefighters fought the fire on the ground and made sure everyone was out of the building, crews battled the fire from two aerial units, spraying streams of water to knock down the fire. It was out in about half an hour.
Fire Rescue said at least eight of the units were damaged by fire and as many as eight others received some smoke or water damage.
Hours later, fire crews and the Red Cross were still helping 12 displaced families find other places to stay.
Ettling, who had pounded on neighbors' doors to alert them of the fire, stood calmly outside the apartment complex's clubhouse, talking to a Red Cross volunteer.
"It's surreal," he said. "You see it on the news. You don't see it in your living room. You don't see your ceiling sitting on your coffee table."
He left his keys and wallet in the apartment. They're gone. He left photos and a shadow box from his dad, who died when Ettling was 12. Those are gone, too.
His neighbor, 36-year-old Alan Carter, couldn't even find a change of clothes in his damaged apartment.
"Nothing was salvageable," he said. "It was all soaked and burned up."
For a moment, he lamented not having renter's insurance.
But since everyone made it out of the apartment safely, he said he thought they were all pretty lucky.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.