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House fire sends four to hospital with burns

Four people were injured Sunday night when a suspicious fire gutted a former halfway house on Seventh Avenue N.

Witnesses said flames spread so fast that one of the injured was forced to push his naked girlfriend to safety from a burning second floor window.

"One guy came out ripping his clothes off," said Tim Peterson, 19. "He was totally on fire."

Three patients were flown to the burn unit at Tampa General Hospital, where they were in critical condition. The fourth victim was in stable condition at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg.

Authorities had not released the names of the injured by late Sunday.

"This is certainly very serious because of the number of victims," St. Petersburg fire Marshal Jim Large said.

Earlier Sunday, a domestic argument was reported at the home, where neighbors said people partied and argued at all hours.

An arson task force was combing through the charred remains Sunday night. The fire, Large said, had spread unusually fast for it to be accidental.

"That's what concerns us . . . How did it get going so quickly?" Large asked. "Did it have help, such as an accelerant?"

Neighbors called 911 at 6:02 p.m., when they saw flames shooting from the front porch. By the time the first emergency trucks arrived at 237 Seventh Ave. N three minutes later, half the wood frame building was in flames.

Witnesses said some tenants were using sticks and twigs to barbecue on a small grill on the front porch before the blaze started. Other witnesses said they heard an explosion.

Milko Donchev, 43, lives across the street from the house. He called 911 when he saw flames on the front porch.

"When I came out, the whole building was in flames," he said. "I tried to get in, but it was impossible. I heard voices inside . . . I saw a man and a woman. They broke the window and they just dropped from the window."

Large, the fire marshal, said two other victims were discovered in the back of the house. One man with significant burns was staggering on the ground; the other was waving his arms on the roof, he said.

Fire Capt. John Adams positioned a ladder to rescue the man from the roof.

"He . . . threw that victim over the shoulder and carried him down," Large said.

Other tenants, like Steve Beyer and Gary Andrews, escaped unscathed.

Beyer, 39, was sitting in the driver's seat of a car outside the home.

"I just lost about $1,000 worth of stuff," he said. "A color TV set. Brand new. My clothes. Pictures. A radio."

Residents who lived next door to the gutted house were evacuated.

"I looked out the window and all I saw were orange flames pouring out of every window," said Russell Peck, who felt the heat through the wall of his apartment. "The first thing I thought of was my animals."

Peck, 29, gathered his eight birds _ four Amazons and four lovebirds _ and ran from the home.

"It's good for the neighborhood that the house is gone but not for the people in it," Peck said. "It was almost 24 hours a day of arguing in there."