TAMPA — A police officer tried to force his way in with an ax, but it broke. Neighbors beat on the windows until their hands swelled.
Noxious smoke filled an east Tampa home Monday night, with 34-year-old Hazziz Crawford trapped inside. The culprit was the very thing designed to keep him safe: the home's burglar bars.
Crawford couldn't find the keys to open the metal bars. At one point, he passed out.
A quick-thinking firefighter finally arrived and freed him.
"I can't even count how many I've seen who are already dead when we get there because of burglar bars," said Tampa firefighter Jason Luna, who pulled Crawford from the home.
Burglar bars are commonplace around Tampa Bay, but fire officials say many are dangerously outdated. Bars that require a key or tool to open do not meet current fire codes. Fire officials say they need an emergency release.
Each year, Luna responds to a handful of fires made more dangerous by burglar bars. He recalled a fire about six years ago at a boardinghouse where locked bars kept firefighters out. A woman was breathing when she was found, but she died three days later.
Monday night's fire started when Crawford fell asleep with hot grease left on the stove at his home at 2206 E Chipco St.
Neighbor Aisha Legair was home about 10:45 p.m. when a friend noticed the fire. Legair and three friends ran to the house while another called 911.
"I never ran that fast in my life," Legair said.
They could see that Crawford was asleep but couldn't get to him. They banged loudly until he woke up. Legair passed a fire extinguisher through the bars. But it emptied before Crawford could douse the flames.
Tampa police Cpl. Eric Wilkinson arrived and smashed one of two locks securing the bars, but the ax handle broke. Luna showed up minutes later and helped pry off the door.
Crawford suffered smoke inhalation and minor burns.