TAMPA — Just minutes earlier, Tiffany Loflin had been fast asleep. Now, trapped in the smoke-filled room of her burning apartment, the 23-year-old watched her toddler dangling out the window.
Her friend A.J. Grace, 20, held the 16-month-old and calculated the two-story drop. Her brother Ryan Loflin, 25, stood below with his arms extended.
The young mother's heart pounded fast.
Oh my God, she thought. Please, just catch her.
Grace let go.
Early Sunday morning, about 1:15 a.m., Ryan Loflin made the most important catch of his life, his niece Tiyana Samuel.
Then, his sister.
Ryan Loflin, now recovering from minor injuries, wasn't the only lifesaver in a fire that destroyed two apartments and killed a woman above Potbellies Family Restaurant, 3826 S Himes Ave. in South Tampa.
The name of the woman who died was not released Sunday by Tampa Fire Rescue officials. She used some of her last breaths to wake the three adults and two children in the apartment next door.
• • •
"Tiffany!" the woman shouted as she banged on the wall they shared. "Tiffany!"
As her toddler slept soundly beside her, Tiffany Loflin opened her eyes. So did Grace, who was spending the night. Ryan Loflin stirred from the other room, where he had been sleeping with his 2-year-old daughter, Raelyn.
From their doorways, they saw the flames, licking up the walls of the living room, melting the television, blocking the door. They tasted the smoke.
As Tiffany Loflin recalled, no smoke alarm had gone off.
"Get your daughter!" Grace screamed to Ryan Loflin. Grace then filled a big bowl with water and splashed it onto the flames dancing in the carpet.
Ryan Loflin re-emerged with the screaming toddler in his arms. He kicked the door open and carried her downstairs to safety. A piece of the ceiling crashed behind them.
Grace retreated into Tiffany Loflin's room and shut the door. They needed to get out. The window was the only option.
Tiffany Loflin trusted Grace with her toddler, then with herself.
As she hung out the window, she looked at her brother below, and at the two little girls crying at his feet.
She prayed she wouldn't fall on either of them. She landed on her brother's back.
Then, as Grace felt the flames on his back, he jumped to safety.
But the woman, whose cries stirred them from their sleep, would not jump. At 1:20 a.m. when the firefighters arrived, they saw her in the window, screaming.
They tore through the flames with hoses and found her a few minutes later, passed out in her bathroom.
Paramedics treated her for smoke inhalation and burns. They took her to Tampa General Hospital, but she died.
• • •
Officials have not determined what caused the fire. It was the city's second fire death this year.
Thirty-two firefighters from five stations tamed the fire in half an hour, but the aftermath will take much longer to sort through.
The restaurant suffered only water damage but did not open Sunday. In the two apartments above it, beams were exposed, paint bubbled off the walls. Little flakes of ceiling continued to fall late Sunday morning as Tiffany Loflin attempted to salvage what little was left.
She hasn't lived in Tampa long. The single mother, a Marine Corps sergeant, was recently transferred from a base in North Carolina.
Loflin, who had no renter's insurance, lost almost everything she owns — the appliances, her furniture, her laptop. She had even left her purse, with her wallet inside, in the now unrecognizable living room. She is staying with Grace for now.
On Sunday as she picked through the ash-caked toys in her baby's room, she cried. A family friend, Mary Hernandez, hugged her.
"You're okay," Hernandez said. "That's what's important, right? Thank God for Ryan and A.J."
And for the woman next door, Loflin said, whose cries woke her family:
"If she wouldn't have done that … ," Loflin said.
She didn't finish the sentence.
University of Missouri journalism student Genevieve Conti contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.