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MECHANIC DIES IN EXPLOSION

The cause of the blast at a gas station-repair shop is still unknown.

A 22-year-old man burned to death Wednesday after a mysterious explosion rocked the automotive repair shop where he worked.

Farid IA Karakra's screams echoed through the blaze as two men tried in vain to assist after witnessing the powerful bang that blew the roof off Jacob's Lube and sent two garage doors off their tracks.

Alonzo Brown and Eric Frantz, both 37, ran to the violent scene from across the street, where they were starting a shift at Nicola's Donuts.

While Brown tried talking to the man, Frantz tore through layers of duct tape to reach the station's emergency shutoff button to stave off an explosion at the gas pumps 20 feet from the fire.

By the time firefighters arrived at the Citgo gas station shortly after midnight, the mechanic was dead, leaving only questions for those who knew and cared for him.

"Do you think he cried?" 10-year-old Reasie Balenger asked her grandmother as they stood outside the charred building at 901 W Busch Blvd., near the intersection of North Boulevard.

Tina Sculley, 47, manager of the deli adjoining the garage, put her arm around her granddaughter. The mechanic they nicknamed "Frito" had spent hours showing the girl how to fix cars while she visited her grandmother at work.

It was still unclear late Wednesday what caused the blast, and what Karakra was doing there after hours. Both the gas station and garage were closed.

Diane Woodward, 38, who also works in the deli, described hearing three explosions - "two big ones and a little one" - while watching television at her home behind nearby Chamberlain High School.

Woodward saw the flames and ran to the scene until police blocked her from getting close. When she learned who was inside, she was devastated.

Tampa Fire Rescue, Tampa police, and the state fire marshal are investigating whether the fire was suspicious or accidental. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was also on scene, a measure FBI spokesman Dave Couvertier described as precautionary.

Bomb technicians were called in for support, Couvertier said, and FBI investigators remained to help recover evidence.

Ahmed Bedier, director of the central Florida chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations, roamed the site of the explosion Wednesday afternoon after he said members of Karakra's family contacted him.

Karakra, of 14550 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., was Muslim, and moved to the United States four years ago from the West Bank city of Ramallah, Bedier said. Karakra's sister is married to the owner of Jacob's Lube, he said.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show only one arrest for Karakra. In July, Tampa police charged him with possessing fraudulent identification, described as a counterfeit international driver's license, and having an expired Florida driver's license. Court records show the case was reduced to a traffic violation.

Bedier said he has no reason to believe the incident was a hate crime, but family members and others asked CAIR to keep an eye on the investigation lest there be any questions of civil rights. Ramzy Kilic, a civil rights coordinator with the group, documented the scene with video.

"It could very well be an accident," Bedier said. Karakra was a chain smoker who has been known to light up in the garage, despite the presence of highly flammable chemicals, he said.

Friends and acquaintances described Karakra as energetic, with a quick and memorable smile. He spent evenings playing cards with friends at Middle Eastern-themed coffee shops like 4U on E Busch Boulevard and Al-Aqsa in Temple Terrace.

"He was young and always lively," said Mustafa Dandashly, 18, who served him so many coffees at Al-Aqsa, he memorized Karakra's favorite: Turkish coffee, medium sugar, in a big cup.

In fact, the last time anyone saw Karakra was about 11:30 p.m., Bedier said, at the Al-Aqsa Coffee House, 10819 56th St.

Basel Yasin, 28, said Karakra seemed perfectly jovial when he walked in earlier in the night to meet with friends. Yasin gripped his hand in a shake earlier in the night and then watched from another table as he and his friends departed, with plans to meet at 4U later.

Bedier said Karakra never met his friends as planned. No one was certain why Karakra might have gone back to the shop.

Manuel Melendez, 22, has been cutting Karakra's hair at Tampa's In the Cut Barber Shop across the street for about five months. He said it's not unusual for Karakra to stay at the garage after hours.

He'd been working on a Toyota Matrix of his own, Melendez said: "his little project."

His family could not be reached Wednesday to talk about Karakra, and no one was home at his New Tampa apartment off Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

The Citgo station and deli remained closed Wednesday. Emergency workers ordered heavy equipment to the garage to bring down an unstable wall and prop up its roof. A charred green vehicle with chrome rims sat on the property, its trunk blackened and blown out. Bedier said it belonged to Karakra.

While Woodward and Sculley waited for police to give them access to the shop, they recalled the mechanic. He might have been from the Middle East, they said, but the name on his uniform read "Fred." He called Sculley "Ma" and favored grilled chicken sandwiches.

"Do I think he cried?" Sculley said, finally responding to her granddaughter. "Yes. But, you know what, I think he's smiling and laughing right now."

Times staff writers Kevin Graham, Jared Leone and Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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