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Smoking in bed may have caused On Top of the World fire in Clearwater, unit's owner says

Francis Brennen, 58, sifts through the remains of his home Wednesday. His appeared to be the only badly damaged unit.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Francis Brennen, 58, sifts through the remains of his home Wednesday. His appeared to be the only badly damaged unit.

CLEARWATER — Hours after an overnight fire gutted his unit in the On Top of the World over-55 community, Francis Brennen spent Wednesday morning sifting through his belongings.

An antique kitchen table was among the few items that survived. His computer, television and stereo melted, his bed had holes in it and an entire wardrobe was destroyed.

Brennen, 58, also lost a friend: his pet, a male ferret named the Duke of Skye, was killed.

"I just buried him out back," Brennen said. "He watched the place over for me."

According to authorities, 25 units of the two-story structure at 2000 World Parkway Blvd. were evacuated Tuesday night as firefighters worked to put out the fire, which neighbors said began sometime after 8.

Brennen's unit appeared to be the only one badly damaged, though the outside wall of the unit above his was blackened by smoke.

"I feel fortunate," said Bob Hand, 50, Brennen's next-door neighbor. "Somebody was looking out for me."

The Pinellas Sheriff's Office Arson Unit is investigating, but when asked how the fire might have started, Brennen speculated that he may have been at fault: "It was probably from smoking in bed, which I do."

On Top of the World management declined to comment.

Outside Brennen's unit Wednesday, the fire was the talk of the community.

Passers-by stopped to catch a glimpse.

Two women wore masks to cover their faces from the powerful smell of charred items that filled the air.

"At first, it was scary," said William Litsakos, who lives two units down from Brennen. "Then, it became entertainment to people."

Litsakos, 82, was among the first to notice the fire. While working on his front door Tuesday night, he smelled smoke.

Litsakos alerted Hand, who pulled the fire alarm. The two witnessed the full extent of the blaze after going behind the building.

"The place was entirely engulfed," Hand said.

Several neighbors attempted to stop the fire with hoses, but the water "was drying up before it hit the flames," Litsakos said.

Clearwater firefighters responded just before 9 and had the blaze out within 20 minutes, said Clearwater spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts.

Brennen and two other neighbors affected by the fire are being housed at a local hotel by the Red Cross. Brennen, who said he has no insurance, also is receiving food and clothes.

He tried to stay positive.

"Nothing of importance is damaged," Brennen said.

Keith Niebuhr can be reached at kniebuhr@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4156.

Smoking in bed may have caused On Top of the World fire in Clearwater, unit's owner says 05/06/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 6, 2009 8:29pm]
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