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Sole fire survivor ponders suicide

TAMPA — Last July, Wallace Ecenia Jr. awoke to the acrid scent of smoke and hoisted himself out his bedroom window to escape his burning home. When he went to rescue his sleeping mother and sister from outside, it was too late.

The only survivor to the fire that destroyed their home, Ecenia, 48, struggled to cope, telling his family as the fire's anniversary approached that he wanted to kill himself, police say.

On Tuesday, that struggle came to an abrupt climax when an armed Ecenia barricaded himself inside a sedan near his family's north Tampa gem shop, launching a tense standoff that ended more than five hours later when police finally convinced him to leave his car.

After he spent an afternoon holed up without air conditioning outside Wally's Natural Wonders at 6007 N Armenia Ave., police lured Ecenia out of the car with the promise of water.

Relatives had been worried about him because next week marks the anniversary of the fire, said Laura McElroy, a spokeswoman for the Tampa Police Department. Juanita Ecenia, 77, and Michelle Ecenia, 53, died last July after an early-morning fire gutted their Egypt Lake area home.

Wallace Ecenia Jr. suffered only minor cuts and bruises in the fire. While his family apparently slept through the blaze, he awoke to find the door of his bedroom hot from the flames.

Firefighters found his sister dead inside the home at 8601 Twin Lakes Blvd., and his mother died at a hospital. His father, Wallace Ecenia Sr., who also lived there, was not home at the time.

After the fire, father and son continued to operate the family's gem store, which the elder Ecenia and his wife of 57 years had started as a way to turn their hobby of rock hunting into a business.

Those who worried about young Ecenia's well-being on Tuesday included Ibelisa Colon, 64, who took over a nearby laundry last year. She briefly knew Ecenia's mother before last summer's fire and was struck by her kindness.

Colon recalled going into the gem store one day with her daughter, who spotted a gemstone poodle she liked. Mrs. Ecenia refused Colon's money and instead gave the trinket as a welcome gift.

Hugo Gauveca, owner of the nearby All Ahead Tax Service, said it was clear Ecenia Jr. and his father had a difficult time continuing on after losing two family members.

"They've been going through a lot of internal tragedy in the past year," he said.

Maria Cruz, 36, who works at the tax service, said Ecenia Sr. called police on Tuesday and then left the business. Police summoned a tactical unit after arriving on the scene at around 1 p.m.

The commotion forced the closure of a small stretch of Armenia Avenue between Henry Avenue and Burke Street.

At 4:23 p.m., police issued a media alert asking a television helicopter to leave the area while they negotiated with Ecenia Jr., who had camped out in the passenger seat of a tan, four-door sedan behind the laundry. He was armed with a .380 semi­automatic handgun, McElroy said.

The standoff continued until Ecenia Jr. finally left the car shortly after 6 p.m. Police tackled him and took him into custody.

Cruz called Ecenia Jr. a nice guy. "I remember he came in last year to have his taxes done, and he seemed okay," she said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Thomas Kaplan can be reached at (813) 226-3404 or tkaplan@sptimes.com.

Sole fire survivor ponders suicide 07/01/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 2, 2008 5:58pm]
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