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Mother and boy, 4, die, father critical after mobile home fire

Savannah Benitez, 11, and her aunt Dagny Perry look at the remains of a mobile home in Lutz where a 4-year-old and his mother died in a fire Wednesday.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Savannah Benitez, 11, and her aunt Dagny Perry look at the remains of a mobile home in Lutz where a 4-year-old and his mother died in a fire Wednesday.

LUTZ — Even at age 4, Gabriel Pita was so energetic, so headstrong, that his mom knew that he — and she — needed help.

"When the adrenaline gets flowing, he has superhuman strength," said neighbor Anita Brookler.

Neighbors said Gabriel commonly raced through Sunrise Mobile Home Park.

Neighbor Tim Salzer said Gabriel swung so gleefully from the family's back door that he pulled both handles off and warped it so it wouldn't close.

Gabriel's dad, 44-year-old Mariano William "Pete" Pita, borrowed Salzer's tools and fastened the door shut with five small screws, Salzer said. "He was going to get a new door with a handle this week."

But early Wednesday morning, Gabriel died after a fire gutted his family's kitchen and filled the rest of the mobile home with smoke.

Salzer's wife, Megan, said she heard Gabriel's mom, Crystal Dooley, screaming. "I told her to get out," Megan Salzer said. "She said, 'I'm trying!' "

Firefighters found Dooley, 37, unconscious behind the screwed door, with Gabriel and his father in a bedroom. None of them were breathing.

Dooley died late Wednesday at Tampa General Hospital's burn unit, according to Carl Pluhm, a hospital supervisor.

The boy's father was still listed in critical condition at University Community Hospital on Thursday morning.

Fire investigators had reached no conclusions Wednesday about what caused the blaze, or factors that may have worsened the family's plight, said Ray Yeakley, spokesman for Hillsborough Fire Rescue. The fire remains under investigation.

Firefighters tore apart the door that Pete Pita had screwed shut.

"He did it just to keep his family safe," Tim Salzer said. "But who would know his place is going to catch on fire?"

Neighbors viewed Gabriel as a paradox. He was obviously bright and inquisitive, they said, but "mentally challenged." He was peaceful and adorable when Pita pulled him through Sunrise in his red wagon, or when Gabriel played with Salzer's 4-year-old daughter, Piper.

But Gabriel wouldn't stay at home. He had broken windows, cutting himself, trying to get out, neighbors said.

"He would always be at the window, looking out," said Catherine Burdick, who lives across the street.

Megan Salzer said Dooley talked about sending her son to a group home. "I loved him to death," Megan Salzer said. "But he was still an out-of-control child."

The family needed help when they moved in two years ago. Neighbors donated money and food.

Pete Pita, with several drug-possession arrests, had finished eight months in prison in 2005, when Gabriel was a toddler. Lately, Pita delivered pizzas and collected scrap metal to make ends meet.

Neighbors praised him and Dooley as parents.

"They were good people," Burdick said. "They were loving parents."

Tim Salzer, 28, said the fire appeared to start at an electrical connection outside the mobile home, and climbed to a window air conditioner and into the kitchen. He snatched up his fire extinguisher but couldn't make it operate. Salzer broke out one of the Pitas' windows with it and started to climb in.

Head and shoulders through the window, Salzer took a breath.

"It was so much toxic smoke, it burned my lungs," he said. Salzer dropped back. "I was kind of slobbering and stuff. I couldn't see."

Salzer sprayed the trailer with his garden hose, until he felt an electrical shock. He saw red-hot copper wires where he had aimed. "I decided to let the fire department do their job."

After pulling the Pitas from their home, firefighters labored for 45 minutes trying to save Gabriel, neighbors said.

They knelt as a group and prayed.

"You could tell it hurt those firemen working on that little boy when they couldn't get any response," said neighbor Doug Blaxton, 48. "They were doing everything they possibly could do."

Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or coats@sptimes.com. Casey Cora and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Mother and boy, 4, die, father critical after mobile home fire 04/16/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 22, 2008 2:15pm]
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