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Fire destroys apartment in Oldsmar

Published Sep. 13, 2005

As 4-year-old Shae Howard stood outside and watched a fire ravage her family's apartment Monday night, she hysterically screamed and pulled her hair. A neighbor gave her a blue stuffed bunny to comfort her.

Later that night, Shae, 4, couldn't sleep, repeatedly waking with nightmares of fires and of Precious, the family cat who slept in her bedroom every night. Precious died in the fire.

"Her mother told her that her cat was with angels," said Shae's grandmother Susan Mouhourtis. "She kept having nightmares.

The next day, it was her parent's turn to deal with the nightmare.

Jessica and Jerome Howard and their two children lost everything they own in the fire that destroyed their two-bedroom apartment in the Village at Old Tampa Bay complex Monday night.

The fire also destroyed the apartment above the Howard's unit, which was vacant. Six other apartments had either smoke or water damage, said Oldsmar Fire Department Capt. Jerry Gabardi. One of the apartments was flooded when a water pipe burst.

There were no injuries. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Damage to the various apartments was estimated at $50,000, said Hank Lobdell, manager of the company that owns the 14-year-old complex.

For the Howard family, damage was total.

Mrs. Howard fought back tears Monday afternoon while rummaging through what was left of their apartment off Tampa Road.

"I want to lose it right now," said Mrs. Howard, 23. "But you know why I'm not losing it, because this doesn't even look like my house.

"Give me a week and I'll be a basket case."

One of the few things that survived the blaze was a porcelain angel given to Shae last year by her godmother, Jennifer Penkalski, a family friend who lived with the Howards and shared a room with Shae. Penkalski was killed last April when her car slammed into the barrier walls on the Bayside Bridge a few days before she turned 21.

"Shae called her Auntie Tootie because she couldn't say Jennifer," Mouhourtis said. "We just told her that Auntie Tootie became an angel."

Firefighters discovered the porcelain angel buried by charred rubble in the room where the fire started, Mrs. Howard said. They were shocked that the fragile angel survived the fire.

"(The firefighters) couldn't believe that it wasn't in pieces from the heat," Mrs. Howard said. "At least Shae will have comfort holding on to that."

Most of Penkalski's belongings _ clothes, pictures and a TV _ which Mrs. Howard was keeping for sentimental value, also survived the flames.

"It's like she was watching over her stuff," said Mrs. Howard as she looked to the sky. "Typical Jennifer."

The fire started in Shae's bedroom and destroyed the apartment in 35 minutes, said Jerome Howard.

He was cooking hamburgers, potatoes, cheese and corn in their apartment when he heard the fire alarm sound. It was on the wall in the living room.

When he walked to the hallway, he saw a fiery glow coming from his daughter's bedroom. He opened the door and saw Shae backing away from her wicker toy box which was on fire.

He told Shae to leave the apartment and then ran to get his wife and Page, their 4-week-old baby, in another bedroom. With his wife and two daughters out of the apartment, Howard went back inside to try to fight the fire, tossing water on it from kitchen pans.

But it was too late.

"(The water) didn't do anything to it," said Howard, 23. "The fire was out of hand."

He rescued Kala, their 2-month-old rottweiler and went back to try save their cat. He had to duck under dense smoke, which filled the room from his waist to the ceiling.

"I could barely even see at that point," Howard said. "We lost everything that we got, but I still got my family and that's the most important thing, that everybody is safe."

The fire was reported at 8:57 p.m. Monday, and firefighters were at the complex until 1:30 a.m. Flames spread through a wall up to the second story and the attic, Gabardi said.

Apartment complex workers are trying to set up an apartment so the Howards will have a place to stay. Currently, the children are staying with their great-grandmother.

The family was able to salvage some pictures, their birth certificates and other knickknacks. But the family did not have insurance.

"It's hard because they were low-income," said Mouhourtis, 43. "They lived from paycheck to paycheck."

Last month, Howard dreamed that Shae was on fire, Mrs. Howard said.

"He woke up me in a cold sweat and I just said, "All right, go back to bed,' " Mrs. Howard said. "I didn't think anything of it."

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