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Firefighters break up attack when other passers-by won't

The young woman was screaming as she was being mugged outside a drugstore. None of the passers-by would get involved.

The robbery stopped with the arrival of three men in uniform. But they weren't police officers. They were St. Petersburg firefighters stationed across the street.

They had just returned to their station when they heard the commotion late Tuesday at Walgreens at Ninth Avenue N and 49th Street. Two teenage girls were attacking a 20-year-old hairdresser for her car keys, police say.

"They had grabbed hold of her hair and were flinging her around very violently," said firefighter Bob Winters. "Something had to be done."

So the three men crossed the street and broke it up. They were surprised that no one else stopped to help. Instead, they say, men and women were just walking in and out of the store.

"The thing that shocked me was that no one was doing anything," said Lt. Rob Edwards. "We just happened to be in the right place at the right time. We felt bound to do something."

This happened about 11:30 p.m. Police arrived soon afterward. Rebecca Burton, 17, and Patricia Rory, 16, were charged with armed robbery, a felony. They were being held Wednesday in the Pinellas County Juvenile Detention Center.

The woman who was attacked, Jessica Ashley, was also surprised that no one else had helped her. She said the two girls jumped her outside the store and pulled a razor blade on her. One grabbed her hair while the other went for her keys.

The firefighters said they didn't have to physically restrain the attackers. They said the two girls backed off.

"They quit," Edwards said. "I don't think they were too intimidated, though."

The firefighters were in the middle of a 24-hour shift, just coming back from a false alarm. Someone had called to report that a live power line was crackling on the ground along 22nd Avenue N. It turned out to be an unspooled videotape, thrown on the ground and glittering in the light.

They had just backed their fire truck into its bay. Winters, who was driving, heard the cries first: "Leave me alone," "Why are you doing this?" and repeatedly: "Give my keys back!"

The other firefighters were in the rear of the truck, stowing their gear.

Winters yelled to Edwards to bring their portable radio, then ran across the street. The two each have more than 20 years with the St. Petersburg Fire Department _ unlike the third firefighter, a rookie named Steve Fletcher who was hired in November.

Fletcher also was surprised by what he described as the "lackadaisical attitude" of passers-by.

As Winters ran toward the noise, he wasn't sure what he was going to do. He didn't know if anyone had called 911. Firefighters aren't armed, and he didn't know if the muggers were. He couldn't even tell whether they were men or women.

"I just knew it didn't appear anyone was coming to the young lady's assistance," Winters said, "and she was in physical danger."