BRANDON — It felt like they stood 40 feet above the ground.
But through the peep hole in the apartment's front door, she could only see yellow. Something was not right.
So at the second-floor family room window, Donna Waters told her 12-year-old daughter to jump.
"I just knew we had to get out, or we were going to die," Waters, 41, said.
Heavy flames engulfed their eight-unit, two-story apartment building around 1 a.m. Tuesday, said Hillsborough County Fire-Rescue spokesman Ray Yeakley.
Investigators are still determining the cause of the fire at the Village of Brandon, a complex near the intersection of Bloomingdale Avenue and Kings Avenue.
The fire appears to have started outside, Yeakley said, eluding smoke detectors at first. Then it spread up into the roof.
"The main entrance area was a box of fire," he said.
It appeared there was just one way out.
A hissing sound had roused Waters from bed minutes before as light flooded through her bedroom window. Through the blinds, she saw flames.
Waters ran to her daughter's bedroom and woke her. Sleepy, Veroniqua thought her mother's frantic behavior meant they were late for school.
At the family room window, Waters knocked out the screen.
Is it safe to go out the front door? she shouted to her neighbors below.
The answer came back: No way.
Honey, she said to Veroniqua, you've got to go. You have to go, she repeated three times to her frightened daughter.
Veroniqua landed, picking up some cuts and bruises.
Then it was Waters' turn.
She grabbed her purse and went out the window.
For just a second, she dangled from the ledge with a strength she knows she doesn't have. And then, skin ripping off her fingers, she fell.
Safely on the ground below, Waters watched with her neighbors as their homes burned. She lost everything — furniture, clothes, her kids' school projects. A painting of her dead mother, gone.
Barefoot, Waters and her daughter went to the hospital. Waters, a clerk of courts for Hillsborough County, wore the previous day's outfit that she had fallen asleep in. Veroniqua wore pajamas.
Waters badly broke her left arm. Surgery aims to fix that next week.
"I'm not so wonderful, but like I said, I'm alive," Waters said. "That is just the best thing in the world."
Mother and daughter, among 22 people displaced by the fire, spent the next few nights in a hotel, set up by the American Red Cross. They had almost nothing.
Veroniqua had snatched her cellphone before jumping but lamented forgetting the charger.
Friends bought Waters a new cellphone. Her sisters drove up from Fort Lauderdale with flip-flops.
Waters' co-workers gave her a coffeemaker, shampoo and towels.
Over the weekend, Waters planned to move into a new apartment while celebrating her birthday. The apartment is in the same complex as her old home, which no longer has a roof or floors.
But this time they'll live on the first floor. Because, Waters said, they don't ever want to jump out of a second-story window again.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.