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Woman dies in Tampa house fire where she survived a fire 11 years ago

A woman died and three Tampa Police Department officers were treated for smoke inhalation after a house fire Thursday at 3405 E Fern St. [Tampa Fire Rescue]
A woman died and three Tampa Police Department officers were treated for smoke inhalation after a house fire Thursday at 3405 E Fern St. [Tampa Fire Rescue]
Published Mar. 8, 2018

TAMPA — A fire 11 years ago in the house at 3405 Fern St. ended in a rescue when firefighters pulled unconscious homeowner Valerie Denise Fleming from a back room and got her to safety.

On Thursday, another fire broke out in the same home.

But this time, Fleming, 57, did not survive.

James Moses Moore, who lives across the street, said he was awakened when a neighbor pounded on his door about 7:20 a.m. to report smoke pouring from Fleming's house.

Moore said he immediately dialed 911 then called Fleming's parents, Ruth and Levi Fleming, who live a few blocks away in the same neighborhood, known as Woodland Terrace.

Police arrived by 7:30 a.m., Moore said.

At a Thursday news conference, Tampa police Lt. Bryan Hill said the officers knocked on the door for a few moments but there was no answer.

Then, the garage door opened.

"We thought someone was trying to get out," Hill said. "But it was the mom." She had just arrived and opened the door from the outside.

Because a car was in the garage, the mother told the officers she was certain her daughter was home.

Hill along with Officers Antonio Ortiz-Saldana and James Dattoma and Cpl. Jim Verble kicked open a door inside the garage and entered the house.

Hill estimates they found the victim five to six feet from the door, inside a laundry room.

They pulled her out but she was already dead.

Neighbor Moore said Fleming lived alone.

Tampa Fire Rescue arrived shortly after TPD and had the fire under control within about 15 minutes. The cause is still under investigation but does not appear to be suspicious, authorities said.

Moore, 76, who said he's known Fleming for 30 years, described her as a quiet person who kept to herself. "She didn't bother anyone," he said.

Fleming's mother, Ruth Fleming, is a neighborhood activist.

Along with her husband, Ruth Fleming runs the crime watch association and was responsible for the 2008 expansion of what is now called the Gwendolyn M. Miller Community Center. In 2012, the city dedicated the Ruth Fleming Walking Trail at Woodland Terrace Park to honor her work.

"This is so sad," said Sonja Bexley, 76, who has lived in the same block for 40 years, after hearing from neighbors that the daughter may have died. "Her parents are so kind. No one should lose their child at any age."

Lt. Hill was treated for smoke inhalation at the scene and his three partners were taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation but were released a short time later.

The earlier fire broke out before dawn on May, 18, 2007, and was covered by the Times.

Firefighters arrived on the scene and began to put out the flames while firefighter Natalie Brown and her partner, Leo Ines-Gulra, began a search. They found Fleming, then 47, unconscious but still breathing in a room toward the back.

That time, she suffered smoke inhalation burns and initially was listed in critical condition before recovering at Tampa General Hospital.

"It was an incredible thing to be able to hopefully save her life," firefighter Brown said in 2007. "It was all of us that saved her. It took teamwork."

On Thursday, noting that the victim nearly made it to the door, Lt. Hill couldn't help but lament that she nearly survived again.

"It is unfortunate to know she was that close to possibly saving her own life," Hill said. "But that smoke can be overwhelming."

Times senior news researcher John Martin and staff writer Donovan Harrell contributed to this report. Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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