TAMPA — Firefighters suspect careless smoking ignited two fires Wednesday that left one man hospitalized and a family of six homeless.
The downstairs at 2411 Gordon St. had been silently filling with smoke Wednesday as William Cepeda slept upstairs.
By the time firefighters arrived at the duplex near the Port of Tampa, Cepeda, 53, was unconscious and not breathing. He was alone, and there were no smoke alarms.
Capt. Bill Wade, a spokesman for Tampa Fire Rescue, said Cepeda was in critical condition late Wednesday at Tampa General Hospital. "The medical staff is breathing for him," Wade said.
Smoking material, a cigarette or cigar, had been left smoldering and set fire to an easy chair in the living room, Wade said.
Cepeda's chances of recovery depend upon how long his brain went without oxygen, and Wade said that's not yet known.
"When you're asleep, the smoke may not be picked up by your senses," he said. "Your senses become dulled, and your sense of smell or taste may not alert you in time. That was probably the case this morning."
With no smoke alarms, neighbors didn't notice the blaze until smoke started leaking from the home about 10:15 a.m. Firefighters got there minutes later and quickly put out the fire.
Three hours later, neighbors saw smoke coming out of 8215 N. 9th St. — a single-story rental house in Sulphur Springs — and called 911.
Daniel Piggot, 38, said he and Kimberly Didley, 35, left home around 11 a.m. to take a HART bus to her mother's house for a birthday celebration. After they arrived, Tampa police notified the couple that their home was on fire.
It took firefighters 10 minutes to douse the flames.
Piggot and Didley returned to find the entire living room charred. Tables and chairs were overturned in the cramped room, and what was once a wooden entertainment center holding large stereo stood blackened and dripping water from the rescue effort.
A man-sized hole in the ceiling exposed insulation and wiring, and a completely burned moveable bar seemed to be fused to the floor. Window panes surrounding the front door had been smashed. Soot filled the air, and photos, speakers, a stereo, a couch, chairs and a coffee table were barely recognizable.
Tampa Fire Rescue said the fire started on the living room couch with a improperly discarded cigarette or cigar. Piggot said he doesn't know how that could have happened.
Holes in the roof in the living room and kitchen have made the home uninhabitable. American Red Cross volunteers sat on the lawn with the couple working out the details of their move and replacement essentials like clothing and food for their four children ages 16, 14, 13, and 10, plus diabetes medicine for Didley.
"I'm just glad none of us were here, because my youngest daughter was supposed to be home but had her tutoring days switched," Piggot said.
The family's chow mix dog was safe in the back yard at the time of the fire. But the estimated $60,000 in damage means they'll have to move.
"We're all just blown away that this happened," Piggot said. "I don't know what's next."
Late Thursday, TGH said Cepeda, the smoke inhalation victim, was in serious condition in the intensive care unit.
Wade said the blaze in Cepeda's living room had been a small one, with most of the two-story duplex's $30,000 worth of interior damage coming from smoke and water. But "the smoke is typically what kills or at least incapacitates most fire victims."
He described the smoke as a thick blanket, dark and heavy, not like in movies, where characters can easily see through a light haze and run outside unharmed.
"You cannot breathe it, not even for a breath," Wade said.
So advises three things everywhere he goes: "Have a working smoke alarm, have a working smoke alarm and have a working smoke alarm. … It really is a matter sometimes of life and death."