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A thunderbolt made Carlos Licea's ears ring and then he smelled smoke and saw flames.

Outside, the rain fell harder and the thunder grew louder. Carlos Licea just shrugged it off Tuesday and continued clicking away on the Internet, paying bills and checking e-mail.

In an instant, a thunderbolt roared so loudly, Licea's ears rung. A bright light temporarily blinded him. And all 10 fingers tingled so sharply, they were shocked off the keyboard.

Licea, a 47-year-old personal trainer for the YMCA, dashed across his four-bedroom home to check on his two sons and his mother. Nova the dog shivered. Licea smelled the odor of burning electrical wires coming from the laundry room leading to the garage.

He pulled down the attic door.

"Oh, shoot," he said. Flames.

He said he ordered the kids, his mother, the dog and two kittens out of the house on Bonneville Drive and tried to call 911 but neither his home phone or his cell phone worked. He ran outside and asked a neighbor to call for help. Then he watched as everything he owned burned to the ground.

It took about 20 Hillsborough County firefighters an hour to control the fire. By the time they arrived at the rented 2,000-square-foot Northdale home, the flames were so vicious, they went into defensive mode, focusing on protecting the houses on either side, said department spokesman Ray Yeakley.

"There really wasn't much to save," Yeakley said.

While fire officials still need to investigate the cause of the fire, they assume it was caused by lightning because there was so much of it in the area around the time, Yeakley said.

Licea, his wife and two sons moved in June 29 and had unpacked most everything, Licea said. They were planning a pool party for son Alex's ninth birthday next week. And they were about to hang their pictures up on the wall, as soon as they found their hammer.

Later, as neighbors offered a place to sleep and clothes to wear, it dawned on Licea that the gray shirt and blue shorts he wore were the only items he had left.

"My wallet, I should've grabbed my wallet," he said. "Oh, my computer. Why didn't I grab my computer? It had everything in it. The kids' pictures are all stored in there. All my insurance information."

Licea still had his cell phone, which he used to call his wife, who is in New York on business for American Express. He left her a voice mail message telling her to come home.

His 7-year-old son started to cry.

"Why are you crying Christian?" he asked him.

"Everything's gone," Christian sobbed.

"It's all material stuff," the father said. "We're going to be okay."

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at or (813) 269-5312.