NEW PORT RICHEY — A couple of weeks ago, Derald Gene Stamper was told he had three months to live. An aggressive form of lung cancer, his doctor told him. It spread to his lymph nodes. They gave him an oxygen tank to breathe.
The 63-year-old had once been a yeoman in the Navy. He was stationed in Key West, a liaison for the storied flight team, the Blue Angels. Then 21 years ago he moved to New Port Richey, into a mobile home at 6710 Celeste Drive, and became a loner, said his brother Gary Stamper.
Derald Stamper was in that home at 1 a.m. Thursday, watching TV, when he smelled burning plastic.
He looked down and, for reasons that remain unclear, saw the tube from his oxygen tank was smouldering. Stamper limped out to the garage, climbed into his wheelchair and wheeled out to the street just in time.
A few minutes later, the home erupted in flames. Other oxygen tanks inside went off like bombs. One man said he heard the explosions from behind the 7-Eleven at Little Road and Ridge Road, more than a mile away.
In the house next door, Brian Vaughn sat up in his bed. The room's windows glowed bright orange.
Vaughn, director of safety at the cable contractor Knight Enterprises, evacuated his family out the door opposite the burning house. He was back inside when he heard the first explosion.
"You ever heard a tire on a rim pop?" he asked. "It's like that by about three times. The ground shakes."
Vaughn had just topped off his Ford F-350 pickup with diesel Wednesday. He scrambled outside to move it. By the time he got there, the plastic window covers on the side closest to the burning house were melted. A headlight was warped. The right side reflector boiled.
A power line fell inches in front of his hood while he backed the truck out of the driveway.
Other explosions rocked Vaughn's house. Pantry doors were blown open, sending salt and pepper shakers and glass bottles flying. A heirloom porcelain clock fell from its spot on the wall and shattered on the floor. No one was hurt.
John Seger, a neighbor on the other side, watched from his yard as the oxygen tanks burst. One tank fell on its side with burning oxygen screaming from the top. Flames shot out 5 or 6 feet "like a flame thrower" he said.
Seger hosed down his own home to protect it from falling embers.
"It rained fire," said his fiancee, Kim Furman. "You opened up the front door and it felt like you were getting instant sunburn."
Later Thursday morning, plastic siding hung like cloth on Vaughn's mobile home. A shed in the back was melted.
Stamper's home was a charred shell. Aluminum siding splintered, the middle caved in. A Chevy S-10 parked in the garage didn't stand a chance; its paint a brownish white, tires burned away. Rafters overhead looked like spent matches.
Branches were blackened 40 feet up a maple tree in the yard.
Vaughn found two pieces of an oxygen tank, flat with razor-sharp edges, 60 feet away in another neighbor's yard.
New Port Richey Assistant Fire Chief Tim Exline said the cause of the fire was still under investigation but didn't look to be suspicious. He said firefighters stayed until 5 a.m. knocking down flames and checking for hot spots in the rubble.
Gary Stamper took Derald home with him, where he slept most of Thursday. He said he didn't want to wake him to talk to a reporter.
Back on Celeste Lane, neighbors stood at the lot to survey the damage. A woman who had heard the boom in the night drove by out of curiosity.
Leaned against the outside of the fence surrounding the lot was an old vinyl record. Its grooves were melted flat, edges were charred and a third of it had been broken off. The record's title was barely legible in peeling paint: Disneyland's Peter Pan.
Alex Orlando can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.