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Fuse box fire leaves 12 people homeless

When the temperatures dropped late Thursday, Lorraine Moody's only concern was for her two young daughters. Because there was no heater in the apartment at 912 Hart St., Mrs. Moody opened the door to the electric oven and turned it on. As she waited for the warmth to envelop her home, she fell asleep.

"I don't know what woke me up, but when I looked at the oven, there were flames coming from everywhere," she said. "I turned it (the oven) off and all the lights went off."

Mrs. Moody and her children, ages 7 months and 2 years, were safe. But the incident at her home set off a chain of events that resulted in 12 people losing their homes, at least for now.

Firefighters were called to the three-unit apartment Friday morning by neighbors who tried to help Mrs. Moody repair her electrical problem by replacing a fuse.

"We came downstairs to give her some assistance," Sonya Rodgers, 28, recounted. "Then we saw sparks shooting out of the box. The fire was just shooting."

When firefighters arrived at the building about 11 a.m., the fire in the box had extinguished itself, said acting fire Lt. Peter Verhoeven. Firefighters, however, didn't just walk away when they saw the makeshift fuse panels and exposed wires, he said.

The Clearwater fire marshal and building department decided the building, owned by Elbridge Kell, was not safe, Verhoeven said.

The three families in the building were asked to find other housing until the owner could repair the wiring, Verhoeven said. Two families in a building next door at 912{ Hart St., were advised to do the same if they felt unsafe. The American Red Cross was helping the 12 people find temporary housing.

"I didn't want to have to roll out of here at 2 o'clock in the morning to pull out the woman and her children," Verhoeven said. "That's exactly what would have happened. If it didn't happen tonight, it was going to happen some other night."

The owner, Kell, could not be reached.

Residents complained that they had tried to get him to fix electrical wiring, install heaters and do general maintenance, without any luck.

In August, William J. Phillips, a housing inspector for the city, cited Kell for 16 code violations.

According to a city report, some of the apartments had no hot water and no smoke detectors. Some had rusted stairways, broken heating pipes and needed exterminating.

In a letter, Phillips gave Kell until Dec. 13 to repair the code violations.

No one will be allowed to move back into Moody's building until the electrical panels are repaired, Verhoeven said.

"We're thanking the Lord it's been stopped," neighbor Leon Clifford said.