TAMPA — If Taffy the poodle hadn't pestered her owners Saturday night, a fire could have been much worse.
About 4 a.m. Taffy jumped up on her owners' bed to let them know she needed to go out. So Alice Ferrari, 82, walked to the side door, let the poodle out and waited for the 8-year-old dog to relieve herself and come inside.
Hardly a minute after Ferrari lay back down, she turned to her boyfriend, Ted Kolanko, 83, and said, "I smell smoke."
She began looking for the source in their home on W Hamilton Avenue, near Lowry Park Zoo. Just before she reached the door to the screened-in patio, the fire alarm started screeching. When she opened the door, smoke poured inside.
"It's in the laundry room!" she yelled.
Ferrari grabbed pants, a shirt and Taffy. She let her cat Twinkie out the side door, but where was the other cat, Redboy? She was afraid he was trapped on the patio, but it was too hot and smoky to search for him. Ferrari had to leave.
Meanwhile, Kolanko went across the street to Margie Eckel's house. "Call nine-eleven," he told her. "Our house is on fire."
She ran to the phone, and within five minutes fire trucks, paramedics and police lined the street, she said. In 30 minutes, the fire was under control.
A fire investigator determined the fire started because the laundry room's fan shorted out. It destroyed the laundry room and porch, where neighbors said they saw 6-foot flames.
The patio roof caved in, the plants are charred and the refrigerator is now a rust-colored piece of scrap metal.
Even though much of the home is destroyed, Kolanko and Ferrari are treating Taffy like a princess. Kolanko thinks it was just a coincidence that Taffy needed to go out when the fire started, but neighbor Eckel thinks the poodle was trying to warn them.
Ferrari isn't sure, but she wouldn't be surprised if it were more than a coincidence.
"I figure the Lord shows us in mysterious ways," she said. "He watches over us."
Ferrari and Kolanko don't know what they're going to do now. Insurance will cover their loses, they said, but it'll be at least six months before they'll be able to move back. The neighbors have been very helpful, offering them places to stay, money and anything else they need.
"This is the best block in Tampa," she said. "And the Lord's taken care of me this far."
And the missing cat, Redboy? He's just fine. A neighbor spotted him outside Saturday morning.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.