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FIRE DISPLACES MANY

A resident admits setting an apartment fire, officials say.

A man whose family said he was depressed since losing his job was charged with setting fire to his own apartment at 6910 W Waters Ave. on Monday morning, displacing more than a dozen families.

Gezaheign Awasi, a 45-year-old Ethiopian immigrant, was taken from the complex after firefighters contained the blaze. Awasi was arrested and booked into a Hillsborough County jail on arson charges a few hours later.

Awasi told sheriff's deputies when they arrived that he started the fire, said Ray Yeakley, spokesman for Hillsborough County Fire Rescue. "I started the fire with a match - I lit the bed on fire," Yeakley quoted him as saying. An arrest report adds that he said: "I wanted to kill myself."

No one was injured, though Awasi was led away on a stretcher. Yeakley said Awasi may have had other medical issues.

Awasi's wife, Tsehai Zike, 39, said the family moved to the area three years ago "to make a better life," and her husband worked at a credit company until he was laid off in March.

Zike said her husband was on medication for depression but was a good guy. She said he enjoyed reading the Bible and singing. "He never smoked, he never drank, he never did nothing except this thing," she said. "I'm really sad. We came here to get a better opportunity from Africa."

Authorities said more than a dozen families were displaced from their apartments by the blaze that sent 40- to 50-foot flames through the roof. Yeakley said damages were estimated at $350,000.

Zike said she and her daughter, Mahlet Gemechu, 18, left the apartment early Monday for work and school, as usual. As Gemechu walked to her bus stop, she noticed her father waving from the window, and she thought it was strange for him to be awake so early. She said she called her mother to have her check on him.

When Zike got the call, she was already outside the home, getting in her car. She went back upstairs but found the door chain-locked from the inside.

Zike said her husband wouldn't let her in. That's when she heard the fire alarm and called 911.

Gemechu had already run home and met her mother outside, where they both stood crying and terrified. At that point, they thought Awasi was still inside. "I thought he was in the house burning," Gemechu said of her dad.

But neighbors said Awasi had been running around the building, screaming and wrestling with a neighbor who was trying to warn other residents of the blaze.

Neighbor Eric Cohn said he heard Awasi yelling, "Everybody's gonna burn down. How do you like it now? Drink my blood."

When rescuers arrived, they immediately took Awasi into custody, said another neighbor, Jay Garcia. "I saw like five cops grab him and handcuff him," Garcia said. He said residents were still running outside, and flames were spewing out of the building's roof.

Gemechu, Awasi's daughter, said she and her mother didn't see Awasi screaming or running around. She said the behavior sounded unusual for her dad. "He's always quiet."

Florida Department of Law Enforcement records say Awasi has no criminal history in the state.

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