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Ten units damaged in Tampa blaze

Marcellia Holder and Elizabeth Natteal were making certain that all was well in their College Hill neighborhood Thursday when they suddenly realized that everything was wrong.

As the women, members of a resident patrol, walked the public housing complex about 10:45 a.m., they saw smoke billowing from the second-story window of an apartment. A thick black cloud carried the screams of young children.

"I saw the smoke coming out of the window," Holder said. "I was thinking about the kids."

The women grabbed fire extinguishers and radioed for help. They went inside the building, looking for the children, but soon realized that other residents had pulled the wailing youngsters to safety.

A mere 30 minutes later, 10 families had lost their homes in the blaze, which apparently was caused by children playing with matches.

The four-alarm fire at 1909 31st Ave. started in Apartment 565, then spread though a common attic to destroy 10 units, Tampa Fire Division Chief Tom Littleton said.

No one was injured at the complex, but the heavy smoke filled classrooms at nearby Lockhart Elementary, sending asthmatic children into fits of coughing and sneezing.

That prompted principal Geraldine Kelly to evacuate classrooms on the school's east side and send four children to St. Joseph's Hospital. All four were home Thursday night. The school will be back in session today.

College Hill residents said the fire was started by three children, ages 3, 4 and 8.

"I heard kids screaming, and I knew a lot of kids live in that apartment," said Mary Thompson, who was visiting her mother at the complex.

"After the children were cleared out, the little girl told me her brother was playing with matches."

Jennifer Russell, the mother of the girl, said her daughter told her she and two other children climbed onto a mattress to reach some matches and began playing with them.

Russell and a neighbor heard the children's cries and grabbed fire extinguishers to douse the flames. But the fire, fanned by a high wind, gained ground, and before five minutes passed, everyone had to leave.

Neighbors could do nothing but comfort one another as they watched their homes being destroyed.

"It all just happened so fast," said Eric Watson, 19. "People were running everywhere."

Tampa Housing Authority director Audley Evans said fire extinguishers and smoke alarms were part of recent renovations in the area, but it wasn't clear Thursday whether the fire alarms had sounded.

Some firefighters complained that a fence erected for security in the community may have hampered firefighting.

But Littleton, the division chief, disagreed.

Gates providing access to the complex were opened before firefighters arrived, he said, and although fire hoses had to be run underneath the fence, the delay was only a matter of seconds.

"Anytime you have something between you and what you need to get to, it's a problem. But it was minor problem," Littleton said. "I believe the main problem today was the high wind and also, we had an older building." He said he thought the apartments were built in the 1950s.

Littleton said fire walls, called "stops," which are now required on new buildings, would have helped contain the blaze.

The Tampa Housing Authority will find new homes for the families whose apartments were destroyed, Evans said. But donations of food, clothing, furniture and household items have been requested.

Natteal said several residents , frantic to save a little of what they owned, stayed in their apartments as the fire raged. They rushed around, she said, trying to gather up a few belongings before until the smoke became too thick to bear.

"They were trying to get stuff out of there," she said, "and I was telling them to come on."

To get information on dropoff sites for donations or to arrange for pickup of larger items, call 253-0551, ext. 296. Cash donations may be made through the American Red Cross.

Lockhart Elementary is taking donations to help fire victims whose children attend that school.