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St. Petersburg fire injures tenant, wipes out 15 years of owner's toil

Hugh “Tank” Donnell, 29, sits Monday behind the house in St. Petersburg and watches as charred or damaged personal items are tossed out by firefighters. The building’s owner, sitting in the truck, lived in the room where they are working.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Hugh “Tank” Donnell, 29, sits Monday behind the house in St. Petersburg and watches as charred or damaged personal items are tossed out by firefighters. The building’s owner, sitting in the truck, lived in the room where they are working.

ST. PETERSBURG — Tears ran down the long white strands of beard, pooling on skulls tattooed across his chest.

Daniel "Hoss" Shoemaker does not look like a man who cries. He rides Harleys, shoots boars, skins trout.

But on Monday, as he sat in a wooden chair surrounded by what was left of his living room, Shoemaker said he felt like he didn't have any fight left in him.

A fire early Monday destroyed his two-story home at 2250 Second Ave. N. One of Shoemaker's tenants was pulled from the flames and taken to Tampa General Hospital with third-degree burns.

Monday was the day Shoemaker was set to make his final mortgage payments on a house he's shared with friends for 15 years.

"One minute you think you're okay," he said, smearing soot across his cheeks as he tried to hide his tears. "Then next thing you know, you ain't got anything."

He has no insurance. In two weeks, the bulldozers come.

•••

The kitchen had no floor when Shoemaker and his infant son moved in 15 years ago. There weren't even four walls, he said.

"You could see the bare ground right under you," Shoemaker said.

He started small, building up the home that he hoped to pass down to his son, Josh. He brought in tenants — friends and strangers who paid what they could.

"I didn't grow up with much, so I figured when you got something, you ought to give some of it back," he said.

Sometimes he invited homeless people to stay the night.

Eight people were living in Shoemaker's house when the fire broke out. It's not a family, but it always felt like one.

"We keep each other real close," said John Ireland, 61. "That's how Hoss likes it."

Ireland lost the last of his family about 15 years ago when his mother died and his sister stopped speaking to him. A Vietnam veteran with disabilities, he said he didn't have many options. For a time, he wondered where he would live.

"Hoss is about the best friend a man ever had," Ireland said. "He looks out for folks. When that fire started, I heard him screaming and hollering my name. Like he was my dad or something."

•••

No one stirred until smoke filled the house about 3 a.m.

Firefighters think the blaze probably started in an unoccupied upstairs bedroom.

A 42-year-old man friends identified as Andrew Cameron was unconscious when St. Petersburg Fire Rescue crews pulled him out of a second-story window. He had third-degree burns over 20 percent of his body, said spokesman Joel Granata.

Hospital officials did not release his name because they were unable to locate family.

"We're the only family he's got," Shoemaker said. "I took him off the street."

The eight who lived in Shoemaker's house have two weeks to clear out their belongings before the city rolls in a demolition crew. The structure is unsound.

Shoemaker, whose belongings were largely lost to fire, stopped paying his insurance nearly a decade ago. It got too expensive, he said. The mortgage payments were enough.

"You spend 15 years paying off something, not even a penny to show for it," he said. "This was supposed to go to my son. Now what do I have?"

Shoemaker says he has had custody of his son since Josh was an infant. He doesn't speak of the boy's mother. Father and son now are staying at a local motel.

"Thought doing right by people was supposed to bring good things your way," Shoemaker said. "I guess it just doesn't pay to be nice."

Marissa Lang can be reached at mlang@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804.

St. Petersburg fire injures tenant, wipes out 15 years of owner's toil 07/02/12 [Last modified: Monday, July 2, 2012 10:32pm]
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