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Woman found dead in fire at Lealman apartments

LEALMAN — David Edwards walked to the back of the apartment on Tuesday afternoon and stared at the steel door that led to unit No. 12.

It had three large dents in it.

Edwards and a man named James Skilling put them there hours earlier while trying to rescue a woman trapped in the home, which caught fire just before 2 p.m.

Flames prevented the pair from going in the front door, so they tried using rocks to break out windows. When that didn't work, the men heaved a heavy flower planter over and over at the back door.

They never made it inside.

"We tried our best," said Edwards, a 51-year-old information technology professional who works in Tampa. "The wind was blowing, the rain was pouring down … it was just very intense."

Less than five minutes later, firefighters from Lealman, Seminole, Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg arrived at the burning unit at Paradise Shores Apartments, 5356 81st St. N.

Smoke and flames poured out of the windows and doors, said Lealman Fire Capt. Larry Thompson. Authorities found resident Phyllis J. Wells dead inside a short time later.

Wells, who would have turned 66 today, lived at the home with her mother, Katherine Pisano, 87. She had recently been sick with flulike symptoms, Thompson said.

Pisano escaped the flames and was outside when Edwards, Skilling and a few other good Samaritans showed up to help. Pisano looked stunned, the men said, and was gripping a stainless steel pot and trying to toss water at the windows.

"All she kept saying was, 'My daughter's in there!' " said Skilling, 42, of Pinellas Park, who was on his way to a construction site when he saw smoke and stopped to help. "We were going to try to get in one way or another."

While a couple of the men ran to knock on doors to get the other residents out of their homes, Skilling and Edwards crawled into the smoky apartment next to Wells', looking for an easier entry point.

Then they tried the windows, and finally, the back door.

Thompson said the fire, which appears to have started in a bedroom, remains under investigation. Authorities are not considering it suspicious.

About an hour after the incident, a chaplain arrived and authorities told Pisano her daughter had died.

Neighbors said the women were private, but had lived there more than a decade.

At least three other apartments — two above and one next to Wells' — were damaged. Red Cross volunteers said they were assisting five people.

At about 4:30 p.m., a grey sedan arrived and took Pisano away.

Less than 30 minutes later, Edwards showed up. Paramedics had insisted he go to the hospital for smoke inhalation treatment. His girlfriend picked him up and took him back to the scene. His T-shirt and shorts were still soaked.

"I wanted to talk to the lady, and tell her I'm sorry," Edwards said. "I'm very sorry for her loss."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643.

Woman found dead in fire at Lealman apartments 09/18/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 19, 2012 12:55am]
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