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Fine wine, vintage Porsches burn

There are two loves in Mike Kwasin's life _ classic Porsches and fine wine.

He lost both and came within a few seconds of losing his life in a fire that consumed almost half of his bayfront home early Saturday morning.

The fire started in Kwasin's garage when a electrical box shorted out and burned. Kwasin was awakened by his fire alarm just after midnight. He stumbled into the hallway, then tried to leave the house through his garage.

That was not the right way to go.

When he opened the door to a rec room adjacent to the garage, he was knocked over by the heat and blinded by smoke. He crawled to a side door, finding it when his hand settled on a wine bottle in an adjacent rack. Kwasin twisted the knob and fell out the door.

"They said I would not have lasted another 90 seconds in there," Kwasin said.

Monday, he was still coughing black soot out of his lungs.

Kwasin spent part of Monday at Warehouse Liquors II, his shop on Gandy Boulevard that specializes in fine wines. Then he returned to what was left of the Sunset Park home he's owned for the past 10 years.

He stood for a while at the edge of his garage. The garage was the heart of the fire and the home of Kwasin's prized possessions. The roof is gone. The floor a blanket of blackened boards.

The night of the fire, the garage held two 1960s Porsches. Kwasin is an active owner and driver in local and state Porsche competitions. The cars shared space with an above-ground wine cellar that kept perhaps 4,000 bottles of vintage champagne and wine at 59 degrees year-round.

All that was left of a 1969 912 Porsche Targa and a 1956 356B model were charred metal shells. The Targa was one of the top cars in its class, consistently winning races with Kwasin at the wheel.

The burning roof of the garage crashed down on both cars.

"They're a total loss," Kwasin said.

The wood in the wine cellar looked like old charcoal, but the shell was intact and the wine bottles were in one piece.

Only one problem _ they'd been flame broiled. That's good for Whoppers. Bad for wine.

"This is the one thing that you want to protect it from," said Kwasin of the intense heat.

Kwasin had part of his collection appraised recently. It was worth more than $100,000. Inside were cases of Mondavi Reserve signed by the famous winemaker. Mondavi also collaborated with Baron Philippe de Rothschild on a special wine called Opus One, and Kwasin had three bottles of every vintage since 1979. There were bottles of Dom Perignon representing 12 consecutive vintages starting in 1961. The best French and California reds were represented in his collection.

"I enjoy my wines immensely," Kwasin said. "I'm not a connoisseur, I'm an enthusiast."

He was the same way with his Porsches. He owns two more, which weren't in the garage at the time.

"These were a labor of love," Kwasin said.

On a coffee table in his living room are magazines about cars and wine. The covers were browned and crinkled in the fire's heat. Kwasin lifts them and finds, tucked between two burned magazines, one issue that survived the inferno.

"Look at this," he says.

The cover of the Porsche Profile magazine had a black and white shot of a 1969 912 Targa on the track at Sebring. Behind the wheel is Mike Kwasin.

He lifts the magazine cover to his lips and gives the car a loving kiss.