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After fire, man gets another surprise

Warren Forest, 50, awoke early Saturday morning to a living nightmare - shadows of flames dancing on his bedroom walls.

The fire was coming from the kitchen, but Forest couldn't leave his bed to escape. He'd been paralyzed since a stroke in 1996. All he could do was yell for help.

His 72-year-old mother was in her own bedroom and did not respond to his cries. But a 911 call he placed saved his life.

"Oh, my God, I need help," a frantic Forest told 911 operator Joyce McAlister. "Ma'am, there's a fire in the kitchen. I can't - oh, lordy. The house is up in smoke."

In a different bed Tuesday at Tampa General Hospital, Forest dabbed at his tears while he listened to an audio tape of Saturday's emergency call. The three Tampa firefighters who rescued him stood at his bedside for the first time since the fire and experienced his moments of terror.

Mere minutes on the audio tape seemed like hours to Forest.

Trapped in his room, he had rolled off his bed and was breathing toward the floor, just as McAlister instructed.

He thought about all of the able-bodied people he had seen on the news who hadn't been able to escape fires. He thought about Barbara Black, his mom, who couldn't get to him. He thought about his lungs as he choked on the smoke.

Tuesday, Forest recalled his relief when help came.

"I hear 'em outside. I hear 'em outside," Forest said. "I am so scared. I need help."

Firefighter Julian Mullis, 34, pried open the door, and Capt. Brian Mintzer, 46, found Forest first.

"That house was full of smoke. You couldn't see anything," Mintzer said. "When you go into a house that's on fire, it's like walking into a house you've never been in before with your eyes closed."

"You're standing on my hand," Forest remembered telling him from the floor.

Wayne DeMatthews, who Mintzer called a "one-man Army" rushed in, and the 29-year-old firefighter scooped up Forest with his enormous tattooed arms.

They later learned his mother had escaped through a window.

"Couldn't ask for anything to run any smoother than it did," Mintzer said.

But there was one wrinkle.

When a Times reporter ran a routine background check on Forest, a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office arrest warrant revealed he was a fugitive on probation violation charges rooted in a 10-year-old drug offense.

It was the first time Forest had heard of the warrant, he said. He'd left his wild life behind him after his paralysis, he said.

"That was so long ago," he said, wondering how a man could be a fugitive if he could not run. He said no law enforcement has ever appeared at his home on 3007 E Louisiana Ave. The only officials who visited were the firefighters, he said.

Sheriff's office spokesman J.D. Callaway said warrants kept on file are up to date. He said hundreds of warrants are backlogged, and even if this one wasn't executed immediately, it still stands.

Callaway said people don't always realize warrants exist.

He said he would look into Forest's case today.

Forest remained in Tampa General Hospital until Tuesday, recovering from smoke inhalation and minor injuries that resulted when he hit his nightstand as he fell to the floor.

The firefighters visited Tuesday to check up on him and to bring him a smoke alarm. His house didn't have one before the fire.

"I need another one of these fellas," Forest told the firefighters. "I don't think one's going to be enough."

They laughed. Forest thanked them. And like the smell of smoke that still lingers in his home, what-ifs remain in his mind.

"God woke me up," Forest said.

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at (813) 226-3354 or azayas@sptimes.com.

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