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Faulty hydrant stalls efforts to put out fire

A faulty fire hydrant left frustrated firefighters without water for at least 10 minutes, stopping efforts to extinguish a house fire that critically injured two elderly residents and destroyed their home Sunday afternoon.

Six minutes after Hillsborough County Fire and Rescue officials arrived at 502 Olive Court, they tried to hook up to a nearby fire hydrant to augment the water being pumped from a firetruck to the fire, Capt. Cliff Hitchman said.

But a firefighter couldn't loosen the hydrant's cap. When firefighters ran out of water from the trucks' tanks, there was no way to fight the 3 p.m. blaze.

"We had a serious problem with the water supply," Battalion Chief R. Powell said. "It was a contributing factor in the destruction of the house."

Before a fresh tanker truck arrived 10 to 14 minutes after they ran out of water, firefighters "were screaming at each other," said Carol Chew, who lives across the street from the burnt single-story, stucco home. The driver of one fire engine, helplessly watching the fire grow, "was blasting the horn for water," she said.

Gregorio Smud, 84, and his wife, Raquel, 76, suffered smoke inhalation and were taken to Columbia Brandon Regional Medical Center. Their injuries were not related to the trouble firefighters had with the hydrant.

Both were listed in critical condition Sunday night.

Officials did not know what started the blaze. The masonry home was a total loss, Hitchman said.

After the first hydrant failed, firefighters were forced to turn to a second hydrant, which was about 2,000 feet from the scene _ more than twice as far as the first hydrant. To stretch hose that far, another engine was needed. While they waited, they ran out of water.

Officials had no explanation for why the first hydrant wasn't in working order. And they weren't happy.

"They're a little upset," Hitchman said about firefighters, "because there were . . . mechanical failures."

No information was available on the last time fire hydrants in the area were inspected.

Neighbors tried desperately to help the elderly couple escape the burning home in the four minutes it took firefighters to arrive after they were called. But the Smuds, who have lived at the home for more than 10 years, were trapped inside.

Mario Amaya, who was visiting his girlfriend, Everyn Torres, next door to the Smud's home, said he smelled smoke, and when he knocked on the door, it was hot. He ran to the back of the home, but the flames made it impossible to enter.

"You could feel the heat. It was an inferno in there," he said.

Torres said she, too, tried to reach the Smuds through the front door, but it wouldn't budge.

She could hear someone inside, though. "I heard the guy struggling to get out," Torres said. "He was coughing."

Firefighters were finally able to get the couple out.

Many residents who gathered across the street said that after watching firefighters grope frantically for water, they were anxious about the condition of neighborhood hydrants.

"It's frightening," said Bert Seibert, who lives a few streets down from the Smuds. "There's few fire hydrants here to begin with, and then not to have them work."

Said Chew, "I tell you, if your house burns on this street, it's just going to burn. You might as well just let it."