SAFETY HARBOR — It was 11:45 p.m. on New Year's Eve, just 15 minutes until the ball — and Gene Miller's stomach — dropped.
While his family slept inside his house, he was outside chatting with friends and watching fireworks someone was setting off at a neighbor's party.
Wanting to change his shoes and finish listening to the top 20 jazz countdown on WSJT 94.1, Miller, 50, walked through the garage and smelled a familiar scent: smoke. Quickly, the former Safety Harbor firefighter made his way to his room and was shocked to see that his radio was on fire.
He grabbed a comforter that also was ablaze and started beating at the flames, which were burning the carpet and licking the ceiling.
Remembering his firefighting training, he put the blaze out in about three minutes and started "running and yelling'' for his father Willie Bell, 77, his mother Sue Miller, 71, and his niece, Betty Union, 31, to wake up.
"The smoke detector was going off and they slept through it,'' Miller said. "I was banging on the door. I said get out.''
Once they realized what was going on, Miller said his parents were "freaking out'' and his niece, who is mentally challenged, was confused and wandering around.
Within minutes, the Safety Harbor Fire Department was there.
"He really was a (hero),'' said fire Chief Jay Stout. "He went in and got them out. A few more minutes and it would have flashed out and blown the windows out.''
At the Safety Harbor City Commission meeting Tuesday night, Miller was honored for his bravery.
It turns out that the fire was caused when wires connected to the radio overheated and set the would-be disaster in motion.
Although he suffered burns on his legs, feet and arms, which he calls his battle scars, Miller, an unemployed salesman, is more distressed about losing his and his family's belongings.
"We lost mini blinds, clothes, blankets,'' he said. "We lost a lot.''
Eileen Schulte can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153.