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Apartment fire uproots families

A two-alarm fire gutted the inside of a vacant north Tampa apartment Tuesday night and left surrounding units damaged, displacing about 10 families, Hillsborough County fire officials said.

At about 7 p.m., firefighters responded to the fire at 14408 Hensel Lane Apt. 302 at North Palms Apartment Homes after receiving a 911 call from Paolo Moreira, who lived next door to the apartment engulfed in flames.

"It was hell," said Moreira, 18, who saw smoke billowing from the building as he drove home. "I asked if anyone was in there and no one answered, so I busted the door open. I walked in there for about a second and there was flames everywhere. I ran out and called 911."

Within moments, Michael Guidara and two other Hillsborough sheriff's deputies had arrived.

"We went around knocking on doors and yelling for everyone to get out," Guidara said.

That's when deputies noticed 55-year-old Eulalia Nieves standing near her front window, in the apartment directly below the apartment on fire. Deputies said Nieves is diabetic and had trouble escaping with her mixed terrier, named Gemini, so deputies helped pull her out.

Leland Beck, Nieves's boyfriend who shares the apartment, had gone to the grocery store when Nieves called him during the ordeal.

"She called me up and told me the building was burning and she was out in the parking lot half naked," Beck said. "I just left all the groceries there on the counter and told the (cashier) I had to get home."

Beck said Nieves skinned her knees while trying to get out of the apartment. He said she got tangled up in Gemini's dog chain and fell. Paramedics transported Nieves to Tampa General Hospital as a precaution for her knee injuries, said Ray Yeakley, Hillsborough fire spokesman.

Yeakley said about a dozen fire engines and nearly 30 firefighters fought the fire for 40 minutes.

"(The fire) is going to be considered suspicious only because (the apartment) is unoccupied," Yeakley said.

Deputies on scene said the apartment had a history of problems with drugs and prostitution. Neighbors said though the apartment was vacant, people they suspected of drug use would frequent there. It was too early for a true estimate on the damages, but Yeakley expected them to exceed $100,000. Fire officials will investigate how the fire started.

Chelle Landrum was leaving North Palms after visiting her son just as the fire started.

"We saw glass breaking everywhere," she said. "I thought it was gunfire. It was popping like popcorn. Or like the sound you hear from a fire place. It's the worst thing I ever saw."

Lewis King, 44, who lives next door to Nieves, stood outside on parking lot soaked with water by firetrucks, barefoot and bare chested. In the dropping temperatures Tuesday night, King wondered where he'd lay his head. He was asleep until a neighbor got him out of bed because of the fire.

"I don't know when they're going to let me back in there," he said.

Yeakley said the apartment managers were on their way to the scene to make sure all the residents had a place to stay.