TAMPA — When the fire alarm sounded, Carmela Ortiz and her daughter ran out of their bedroom and into the hallway of their apartment.
Ortiz’s roommate, a mother of two, was already there, but her children were apparently still in the bedroom that the family of three shared.
“She turned around to get her kids and I turned around to get my dog, and my daughter and I were on our way,” Ortiz said.
Moments later, safely outside the burning at the Captiva Club Apartments, Ortiz realized her roommate and her children — a daughter and son, ages 5 and 10 — had not made it outside. Ortiz raced back up the stairs to the apartment.
“I figured maybe she needed help with the kids,” said Ortiz, 40, as she stood in the apartment’s parking lot, clad in her pajamas and holding her Chihuahua, Miley. “I kicked the door open and it was so hot, and the smoke was just so thick, there was no way I was getting in there.”
Firefighters discovered the bodies of the mother and the children after spending some 45 minutes knocking down the flames that had raced through the building.
The names of the mother and children have not been released because authorities were working to notify their next of kin.
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Firefighters and sheriff’s deputies were called to 4541 Castaway Drive about 3:30 a.m., according to Hillsborough County Fire Rescue. They arrived minutes later to find flames shooting out of the roof of the two-story building and one of the building’s walls collapsed.
The first responders raced to evacuate the building of residents who hadn’t already made it out, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said at a news conference.
“Unfortunately, despite these heroic efforts, a family has perished,” Chronister said.
Investigators with the Sheriff’s Office and state Fire Marshal were working to determine the cause of the blaze.
Chronister initially reported that the mother who died was able to escape the apartment, then went back when she realized her kids weren’t outside with her.
But Ortiz said her roommate never left the unit they shared. The roommate also had a blonde Chihuahua, 2-year-old Zoe, still missing Wednesday morning.
Eight apartments were damaged by fire, smoke and water damage. The Red Cross was on hand to help at least a dozen residents who had been displaced.
Ortiz said her roommate was also a friend. They’d known each other for about six years and moved into the apartment together last year, Ortiz’s daughter Alexandrea Vargas, 21, also lived in the apartment.
The roommate’s husband works in Texas and had just visited for Mother’s Day.
Asked to describe the kids, Ortiz’s face contorted in anguish. She bent her head down and touched her nose to the nape of chihuahua Miley’s neck.
The girl, she said, “was so full of life.” She loved to make homemade slime out of contact lens solution and other materials. She was a good big sister, mature beyond her years, Vargas added.
“She was already like a teenager,” she said. “I’m like, ‘You’re 10, calm down.’”
Her brother was enthralled with the online game Roblox. Both children had recently enrolled at Dickenson Elementary, a short walk from the apartment complex.
The apartment complex’s management sent out a statement saying it is helping relocate residents affected by the fire. Wednesday’s blaze was at least the third major fire at the complex in recent years.
In 2015, a fire destroyed or damaged about a dozen units, fire rescue officials reported at the time. Another fire in April 2018 destroyed or damaged several more units.
A search of Hillsborough Property Appraiser records after the 2015 fire showed Captiva Club apartment buildings had accrued violations stemming from defective smoke detectors, electrical wiring and light and ventilation systems. The violations had been resolved by the time of the 2015 fire.
Ortiz and her friend moved into the complex after last year’s fire. Ortiz said her friend had planned to move with the kids to their own apartment when their lease ended in August.
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.