DUNEDIN — Two Pinellas County sheriff's deputies kept a fire from spreading and helped neighbors to safety at the Harbor Town Apartments early Friday, officials said.
Cpl. Jim Cooper was on patrol and noticed smoke coming from a building in the complex, which is at 1686 Hampton Lane, about 12:30 a.m., officials said. Cooper called Dunedin Fire Rescue, and he and Deputy Richard Trump headed for the building.
There they met Eric and Carol Puniska, who told the deputies their apartment was on fire.
Inside, Cooper and Trump found the apartment full of smoke and the kitchen in flames with the fire spreading. The heat and smoke drove them back outside, but then each took a deep breath and went back in, spraying the blaze with their fire extinguishers.
That, officials say, knocked the fire down enough to keep it from spreading to neighboring apartments.
Dunedin Fire Division Chief Bill McElligott said that if the two deputies weren't in the right place at the right time, the fire could have been much worse.
"Quite frankly," he said, "we got lucky."
As firefighters arrived and took over, Cooper and Trump evacuated other residents. There were no serious injuries, officials said.
McElligott said the fire burned so hot that it made PVC water pipes above the stove burst.
The Puniskas told deputies they had been cooking french fries, left the stove unwatched and found the kitchen in flames when they returned.
McElligott said the kitchen was not equipped with hardwired smoke detectors as required by Florida law.
"If they had fallen asleep, it could have been a tragic incident," he said.
"It could have been multiple fatalities."
Friday was not the first time Cooper has been recognized for reacting resourcefully to a fire.
Ten years ago, he was trying to help a man in Oldsmar whose car was engulfed in flames. The man refused to get out of the car, so Cooper leaned into the window and punched him. While the driver was stunned, Cooper pulled him to safety. For that, the Sheriff's Office named him Deputy of the Year.