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Lutz fire inquiry spotlights smoke alarms

LUTZ — Did the Pita family, devastated by a fire in a mobile home, have a working smoke alarm?

That's one of the questions investigators hope to answer, officials said Thursday.

Sam Venzeio, a spokesman for the Florida Fire Marshal's Office, said neighbors didn't hear a smoke alarm, and investigators didn't find one in the debris.

"I'm not sure if they could have afforded the batteries to put in one," said Calvin Dooley, whose daughter Crystal Dooley and grandson Gabriel Pita died as a result of the fire, which started shortly after midnight Wednesday. "I would have put 10 of them in there if I could."

Firefighters found Crystal Dooley behind an exit door that her rambunctious son had broken weeks ago. Because the door wouldn't close, the boy's father had fastened it shut with five small screws until he could buy a new door, said Tim Salzer, a next-door neighbor who tried to rescue the family.

"They could have kicked the door open," Salzer said.

Instead, Mariano "Pete" Pita, 44, was found in a bedroom with 4-year-old Gabriel. Neither was breathing. The child died at the scene. His mother died Wednesday night. Pita remained in critical condition Thursday at University Community Hospital.

In the fire's aftermath, Victoria Yeakley, the public education coordinator for Hillsborough Fire Rescue, distributed fire-safety flyers in the Pitas' neighborhood, Sunrise Mobile Home Park. Top billing in the flyers: smoke alarms.

"Some have them, and some do not," Yeakley said of the Pitas' neighbors.

She planned to return this afternoon to canvass more mobile homes.

Cost shouldn't be a problem, Yeakley said. Hillsborough Fire Rescue gives away smoke alarms and batteries to any homeowner. (To learn more, call (813) 744-5541.) Florida law requires landlords to equip rental dwellings with the alarms, she said.

Yeakley advises everyone to maintain alarms (see box) and establish an escape plan from home.

"Also, make sure your exits are clear, and you can get them open," she said.

Venzeio said Thursday that the Pitas' fire apparently started in their kitchen near the stove. The only functioning door out of the mobile home led from the kitchen. The other door was screwed closed.

Venzeio said that was a "contributing cause" of the deaths.

Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309, or coats@sptimes.com.

. FAST FACTS

Fire experts advise:

• Replace smoke alarms every 10 years.

• Install one outside each bedroom.

• Use a combination of ionization alarms, best for detecting spreading flames, and photoelectric alarms, best for slow, smoldering fires.

• Replace the batteries annually.

• Test them monthly.

Lutz fire inquiry spotlights smoke alarms 04/17/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 21, 2008 4:46pm]
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