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Love tied generations to a Tampa home, fatal fire broke the bond

Elwood Guenther wanted to live out his days in Southeast Seminole Heights. But tragedy struck the morning after Christmas.
Thomas Torres, 22, couldn't get back into his burning home to save his 93-year-old great-grandfather Elwood Guenther. It looked from where Guenther's body lie that he might have been trying to find and save Torres.
Thomas Torres, 22, couldn't get back into his burning home to save his 93-year-old great-grandfather Elwood Guenther. It looked from where Guenther's body lie that he might have been trying to find and save Torres. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jan. 1

TAMPA — Early on the morning after Christmas, Thomas Torres woke up to a smoky haze in his bedroom.

Maybe it was a candle or the incense he’d been burning, Torres thought as he shook off the cobwebs of slumber. Then he opened his bedroom door.

“It was a solid wall of smoke,” he said. “There was no way I was getting through it.”

He rushed out a back door and saw flames licking at the roof in the front of the wood-framed bungalow, nearly a century-old. He thought of his 93-year-old great grandfather, Elwood Guenther, whose bedroom was in the front of the house.

When Guenther gave the house in Southeast Seminole Heights to Torres and his sister several years ago, he had a request: He wanted to live out the rest of his days there. He’d inherited the house from his father, and Guenther and his wife Gladys had lived there since the early 1970s. Gladys took her last breath there in 2011.

My wife died here and I want to die here, his family recalls him saying.

Now the modest house fortified by generations of family history was on fire.

A bungalow on Cayuga Street in Southeast Seminole Heights, seen here a year ago, burned in a Dec. 26 fire that claimed the life of 93-year-old Elwood Guenther.
A bungalow on Cayuga Street in Southeast Seminole Heights, seen here a year ago, burned in a Dec. 26 fire that claimed the life of 93-year-old Elwood Guenther. [ Google ]

•••

Built in 1923, the bungalow at 1306 E Cayuga St. was the first house on the block, said Colene Guenther Irizarry, Elwood Guenther’s granddaughter.

Elwood Guenther’s father, Alonzo, bought the house as a retirement home in the early 1960s and lived there with his girlfriend for many years, Irizarry said. Elwood inherited the property in 1972.

At the time, Elwood and Gladys Guenther were living in Ohio, where he had a pest control business. They used the home as a vacation getaway for several years, then moved there in 1985. Colene Irizarry, who lived with her grandparents for most of her life, was about 13 when they moved to Tampa.

“I came from a 10-room farmhouse in Ohio, so to me it was incredibly small,” Irizarry recalled. “I felt claustrophobic.”

But the house grew on her as the family made memories there. Later in life, it would be a refuge.

In 2007, when Irizarry and her then-husband Jose Torres fell on hard financial times and lost their home, Elwood and Gladys allowed them and their two kids to move in. Jose Torres renovated a Florida room and garage in the back house to create an apartment for the family. He ran an electronics repair company out of a recreational vehicle parked on the side of the house.

Thomas Torres looks over an old catalogue and other items he found in the rubble of his great-grandfather's bedroom. The home that the two shared in Southeast Seminole Heights was destroyed and great-grandfather Elwood Guenther died in a Dec. 26 fire.
Thomas Torres looks over an old catalogue and other items he found in the rubble of his great-grandfather's bedroom. The home that the two shared in Southeast Seminole Heights was destroyed and great-grandfather Elwood Guenther died in a Dec. 26 fire. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
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When Irizarry and Jose split up in 2009, she moved out with the kids and Jose stayed in the apartment.

On Independence Day in 2011, Gladys Guenther died as she sat in her wheelchair at the dining room table. Irizarry and a hospice nurse were there with her.

Four years later, Jose Torres had a heart attack and died in the back apartment. His children decided to use a small life insurance policy to pay off Elwood Guenther’s mortgage. He sold the house to them in 2016 for $100.

Thomas Torres, 22, moved in a few years ago. A full-time student taking carpentry and other building trade courses at Irwin Technical College, he started fixing up the house using his new skills.

He also helped his grandfather when he needed it. Guenther’s mind was sharp and he could still get around well, sometimes with the help of a cane. He attended the Church of Christ on Nebraska Avenue every Sunday and visited friends in the hospital or nursing homes, bringing them things they needed.

“He just loved people, loved God and was the most patient man I ever knew,” Irizarry said. “He would say, ‘I don’t know why God still has me here but I guess it’s some reason.’ I said, ‘We love you and you’re our pillar.’ "

Elwood Guenther, right, shares a meal at Steak 'n Shake with great-grandson Thomas Torres, left, and great-granddaughter Jennifer Torres. Guether and Torres were in the family's Tampa home when it caught fire Dec. 26.
Elwood Guenther, right, shares a meal at Steak 'n Shake with great-grandson Thomas Torres, left, and great-granddaughter Jennifer Torres. Guether and Torres were in the family's Tampa home when it caught fire Dec. 26. [ Courtesy Thomas Torres ]

Guenther was frustrated when the coronavirus pandemic forced him to limit the outings, she said. Without the activity, he seemed to grow older and frailer this year, Irizarry said.

On Christmas night, the family gathered at Irizarry’s house in Ybor City for Guenther’s favorite yuletide meal of ham, mashed potatoes and homemade German Chocolate cake.

But something felt off this year, less festive, the family said. Usually talkative, Guenther was quiet. In hindsight, the somber mood felt like foreshadowing.

Before he left the house, Guenther said he wanted to get together again for New Year’s Eve. Colene promised to make his favorite New Year’s dish, pork and sauerkraut.

Back at their house, Torres said goodnight to his great-grandfather. It was the last time he saw him.

Elwood Guenther, left, poses for a selfie with his family during a Christmas Day gathering at the home of his granddaughter, Colene Guenther Irizarry, right. Also pictured are Irizarry's children, from left, Jennifer Torres, Christian Irizarry and Thomas Torres. Hours after this photo was taken, the Southeast Seminole Heights bungalow shared by Thomas Torres and Elwood Guenther caught fire.
Elwood Guenther, left, poses for a selfie with his family during a Christmas Day gathering at the home of his granddaughter, Colene Guenther Irizarry, right. Also pictured are Irizarry's children, from left, Jennifer Torres, Christian Irizarry and Thomas Torres. Hours after this photo was taken, the Southeast Seminole Heights bungalow shared by Thomas Torres and Elwood Guenther caught fire. [ Courtesy Colene Guenther Irizarry ]

•••

Torres had been asleep for about an hour when he awoke at 3 a.m. to a room full of smoke.

Finding the smoke in the hallway too thick to get to the front of the house, Torres went out the back door and saw the flames. He ran inside to get his phone and pants, then came out and called 911.

He couldn’t cut through the side yard to the front of the house because the flames and heat were too intense, blocking the narrow pathway. As Tampa police officers arrived, Torres scaled the fence and made it around to the front yard. His grandfather wasn’t there.

“I thought back to how thick the smoke was in the hallway and I could only imagine what it was like in the front of the house,” he said. “When I didn’t see him out there, I figured he didn’t make it.”

The bone-chilling cold suddenly hit him as he stood there in the yard, wearing a t-shirt, pants and sandals. A police officer offered a seat in a patrol SUV. Torres watched as firefighters battled the flames that would eventually consume most of the house and his late father’s old RV parked beside it.

The family said firefighters found Guenther’s body on the floor in the dining room near the kitchen entrance. He was lying on his back. The family figures he was trying to make it to Torres in the back apartment and fell on the way.

Irizarry said his body was found almost in almost the exact spot where his wife died nine years earlier. The bronze urn containing Gladys Guenther’s cremains was found nearby, sooty but intact.

Guenther’s body had some heat blistering but did not burn, his family said. They’re waiting for the Hillsborough Medical Examiner to determine the cause of death, but Irizarry said they find solace in the fact that he didn’t burn to death.

Investigators determined the fire was accidental and caused by an electrical malfunction, according to Tampa Fire Rescue. Torres said they were told the fire started in Guenther’s room and that a small reading lamp he kept clipped to his headboard to read the Bible might be to blame.

“The moral of the story is time is precious,” Irizarry said. “Never think, ‘I’ll do it tomorrow.’ Tomorrow might not be here.”

Torres, who will resume classes at Irwin next week, was able to salvage some clothes and most of his tools. A Facebook fundraiser Irizarry created for him has raised a little more than its $1,000 goal from friends, family and even some strangers. Friends at the Flex Appeal Miami gym in Tampa collected clothes, food and toiletries. Safely Towing in Tampa offered to haul away the burned RV for free.

“A lot of people are going through hard times and I was really surprised and humbled that so many people care that this tragedy happened,” Torres said.

Torres, who is staying with his mother and stepfather, didn’t have homeowner’s insurance, so after the charred rubble is cleared, he’ll have only a vacant lot.

Before the fire, he’d set a goal to build his own house one day. Now he’s thinking about doing it there, a fresh start on a property that has been in the family for so long.