ST. PETERSBURG — Antonio Harris heard banging on his door about 10:30 p.m. Monday. It was his neighbor. She said her first-floor apartment across the courtyard was on fire.
A floor above the burning unit, Ashley Stafford was talking to her mother-in-law on the phone. She suddenly smelled smoke. Her three young children — a 1-year-old boy and two girls, 2 and 6 — were in the Pinellas Point apartment with her.
"Mama, there's black smoke everywhere," Stafford said. "Come help us."
Wearing only underwear, Harris dashed into the cold and over to the building. He scaled a pole to get to Stafford's second-floor unit. Stafford made her way to the window and handed the children to him.
Harris then tossed them to two of his cousins who had gathered below. They caught the children, who were shaking and stunned. Then Harris helped Stafford to the ground.
"It was just instinct," Harris, 24, said. "She was handing me the kids and I was tossing them down."
Stafford, 23, and her kids were taken to All Children's Hospital for smoke inhalation that fire officials said was not life-threatening.
"They inhaled a lot of smoke," said Cheryl Flounary, Stafford's mother-in-law, to whom Stafford had been talking on the phone. "I'm just glad to say that my grandkids and my daughter-in-law are safe. Their health is more precious than any material things."
Flounary identified the children as Ollie Flounary III, who turns 1 today, Olivia Flounary, 2, and Najiyyah Flounary, 6.
Fire officials said four units at Edgewater Apartments, 3275 Pinellas Point Drive S, were damaged enough to force the displacement of the 15 people who lived in them. The Red Cross was summoned the scene to help.
The woman who lives in the first-floor unit that caught fire, Stefanie Rich, said the blaze started when her 22-month-old son tipped over a candle she had burning on her television.
"It kind of circled in a ring of fire," said Rich, 26. "I grabbed him and we ran out the door as quickly as possible."
Fire officials said no one else was injured.