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Fire destroys St. Petersburg home, dealing another blow to struggling family

Seven people were home at the time of the blaze and all made it out safely, according to the fire department, but nearly everything else was a total loss. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Seven people were home at the time of the blaze and all made it out safely, according to the fire department, but nearly everything else was a total loss. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Dec. 7, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG

When flames early Saturday consumed the Coquina Key house, remains of previous tragedies were scorched once again and a family's grief that seemingly could grow no more somehow did.

The McDermott home at 4440 Pompano Drive SE, an unassuming single-story beige house near a bayou, was destroyed in a fire shortly before 3 a.m. Two adults and nine children lived inside, a group of youngsters who altogether have lost three parents since 2007.

Seven people were home at the time of the blaze and all made it out safely, according to the fire department, but nearly everything else was a total loss.

It's the latest in a series of misfortunes the blended family has suffered.

Two months ago, in early October, Francis "Frankie" McDermott, who owned the house on Pompano, was gunned down on Eighth Avenue S. Authorities described it as a drug deal gone awry. Two years before, his wife, Brandy, died of a massive hemorrhage. Brandy and Frankie, in addition to their own kids, had taken on the children of Frankie's sister, Mandy "Red" Sampson, who was shot and killed in 2007 in St. Petersburg.

Saturday, even the three urns containing those remains were scorched.

"How much can one family take?" said David McDermott, 37, as he looked at the wreckage in the afternoon.

A pieced-together clan of eight boys ranging in age from 1 to 12 is left. Frankie and Brandy's only daughter, Taryn, is 18 and lives on her own. David McDermott, Frankie's twin, and his wife, Samantha, are trying to keep the rest of the children together and out of foster care.

After Frankie's death, the kids stayed in the three-bedroom house on Pompano Drive that David said his brother bought outright a few years ago for about $40,000. The children lived with Janice Gonyer, Frankie and David's 78-year-old adoptive mother, and Karen Colley, an adoptive sister. Karen's son, 13-year-old William, woke everyone in the home and helped them to safety, relatives said.

He and the others who were in the house were hospitalized Saturday for treatment of smoke inhalation. Firefighters said they think an electrical problem sparked the blaze.

David, his wife and some family friends combed through the charred interior of the home on Saturday and cut plywood to board it up. David said they can't afford to clear out the debris.

"What money I have, I need to spend on getting the children back right again," he said.

David works in property maintenance and Samantha is a vice president at a bank. She said they have been stocking groceries for the children since Frankie's death and paying $250 a week in gas to take the kids to school and check on them regularly. Frankie did not have life or home insurance, so after his death, Samantha said they considered buying a policy on the house. It would have cost about $8,100, she said, an expense they could not absorb.

"My husband and I are going broke," Samantha said.

She and David live on 38th Avenue N in a two-bedroom, two-bathroom home they hope to expand to accommodate the children. They do not have kids of their own and David said he is not sure how they'll do it. But he is set on staying afloat and being "strong for the kids.

"I can't let the kids see any weakness," he said.

Some boys ran around the yard of the burned-out home Saturday afternoon, chasing each other and riding on a family friend's motor scooter. The smell of smoke still hung heavy. The McDermotts wore their grief in soot and sweat.

The children eyed a 5-gallon bucket in which someone had trapped a small snake from up the road, excitedly shoving it in the faces of tired adults. David said he brought them there to see the damage first-hand because he didn't have the words to explain it.

Connie Hazlewood, Brandy's mother, said the children are too young to understand what happened. Or perhaps they just have too much experience with trauma to register it.

"They've had death so much," she said. "They don't even understand it."

Early Saturday morning, Hazlewood said, she learned about the fire sometime after 3 a.m. and drove to the scene from her home on 16th Street. After her daughter died, she said, she blamed God. But not anymore; the losses are too many.

"God doesn't do stuff like this," she said.

Hazlewood had called Taryn, the McDermotts' daughter, to tell her of the fire. Taryn remembers thinking, "Oh Lord, what happened now?"

When David McDermott arrived at the home about 3:30 a.m., he accounted for the children first. They were safe, up the street. Then he went back to the house and searched for the most important thing to him aside from the living: the dead.

The firefighters kept him away at first, but he later collected the three urns, now coated with ash inside and out.

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.