SPRING HILL — One neighbor would come over to mow the yard. Another allowed them to borrow a car to run errands. Other friends regularly checked to see if they needed anything done around the home.
In return, Trudy Kemper occasionally made dinner for her friends. Tamerla Kemper would take her neighbors' dogs for a walk. In the 3300 block of Seaview Drive, such support is the currency of the neighborhood's informal bartering system.
But Tuesday night, as their small mobile home burned down around them, Trudy and Tamerla Kemper were simply beyond the help of their friends at the moment they needed it most. The 66-year-old mother and 34-year-old daughter died in a fire that Hernando County sheriff's deputies believe was accidental and might have started in the wiring in the wall.
"We knew they were inside," said Tim Martin, a neighbor who returned to the scene Wednesday to place a bouquet of flowers near a palm tree in front of the house. "It was just a helpless feeling."
"It was horrible," said Paul Smith, a neighbor of the Kempers for the past 14 years. "We all felt sort of helpless."
Sheriff's deputies and Spring Hill Fire Rescue were called to the 924-square-foot mobile home in Weeki Wachee Acres east of U.S. 19 at about 11 p.m. after receiving a report that the home at 3372 Seaview Drive was on fire.
Two dogs — a dachshund and a beagle-dachshund mix — also died. A third dog, a 6-month-old chihuahua named Cisco, was pulled from the fire but ran away and hasn't been seen since.
Matthew Kemper, the son of Trudy, brother of Tamerla and veteran firefighter-paramedic with Pasco County Fire Rescue, came to the house late Wednesday morning accompanied by about 20 of his firefighters. They volunteered for the grim task of boarding up the windows of the gutted home with plywood and covering a hole on the roof with a blue tarp, all the while comforting Kemper with hugs, encouraging words and sympathetic pats on the shoulder.
"He lost his entire family," said Capt. Shawn Whited of Pasco Fire Rescue. "He's not doing very good right now."
Witnesses recounted the frightening scene from the previous night, when they emerged from their homes to find the Kempers' house engulfed in flames.
Several neighbors tried to get inside the home, breaking out the windows and calling the women's names to see if they could get a response. One neighbor used a garden hose to fight the blaze. They heard nothing inside the home and were kept outside by the intense flames.
About five minutes later, firefighters arrived. One of them managed to get inside the burning home and soon emerged with Trudy Kemper. But efforts to resuscitate her with CPR failed and she died at the scene.
"It was just a horrible sight," said Paul Smith, the neighborhood handyman. "It was a community effort to get them out of there. It didn't help but at least they did something."
Neighbors spoke of a doting mother and a dutiful daughter who both suffered from unspecified ailments. Friends said Trudy hobbled around because of a leg injury and Tamerla was blind in one eye and may have suffered from a mental disability.
"They were homebodies," Smith said. "They didn't get around too much and they didn't have much. But they were good neighbors and great people."
A couple of houses down the street, Janet Welling dabbed at her eyes with a tissue and tried to come to grips with losing her good friends of the past 10 years. Welling, who said she has heart problems, said Trudy Kemper called her every morning at 9 a.m. to check on her. "They would do anything for you," Welling said. "In your life, you only have a few true friends. I'll miss them."
Times photographer Will Vragovic contributed to this report. Joel Anderson can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 754-6120.