Just before 6 p.m., Sharon B. Thomas, her son Dezmyne and daughter Shanicke were relaxing inside their home located at 5514 Tangerine Ave. S.
“I heard something go ‘pop,’” said Sharon.
Dezmyne and Shanicke were in the living room, which is right next to the kitchen and the side door the family primarily uses to enter and exit the home.
“I heard rapid popping noises,” said Dezmyne. “We looked into the kitchen and the window was broken open. The fire was right in front of it and the flames were licking the roof.”
Next, Shanicke yelled, “Fire!”
“Shanicke got the fire extinguisher but it wasn’t working,” said Sharon. “So, we ran out of the house.”
A next-door neighbor, Art James, had been relaxing on his backyard patio when he smelled plastic burning.
“I looked over and saw a little bit of smoke coming up from underneath their carport awning,” he said. “So, I walked up front and I saw a fire about a foot high right beside their house on the ground.”
James ran back to get his phone and by the time he got back to the front yard, the flames were now six feet high.
That’s when he called 911.
As James was giving details over the phone, that’s when he heard “a couple of explosions.”
Another next-door neighbor said it sounded like two loud shotgun blasts fired within seconds of one another followed quickly by a series of popping noises of lesser volume.
The alarm sounded in Gulfport’s Fire Department at about 6 p.m., said Lt. Gerard Grady.
“When we pulled up, the whole side of the house was on fire,” said Grady. “The report said someone might be inside. So, we went from fighting the fire to going inside to see if we could find anyone.”
In addition to Gulfport, fire department crews and vehicles from South Pasadena and St. Petersburg responded.
When firefighters determined there were no people inside the home, they got the fire under control in about 10 minutes, said Grady.
“There was lots of flames and smoke high up in the air,” he said.
The fire was so large at one point, it had started to burn the side of James’ three-unit apartment building, “but we stopped it,” said Grady.
As the family stood in the alley behind their home with neighbors and the Gulfport police chief, they watched as firefighters kept tending to the remaining smoke and small flame areas. Talk turned to the family’s beloved 10-year-old male Fox Terrier mix named Ciqualla.
When the family ran out of their home, Ciqualla did not follow.
They also talked about how the house had just been paid off. Sharon, who works as a certified nursing assistant in a retirement facility, bought the 828 square foot home on July 1, 1997.
“I need a bigger house,” she said, chatting. Envisioning how she could expand the living space, she dreamed that the carport wall could be brought out to the edge of the driveway. “And, raise the roof. It’s too low. I don’t like it.”
As minutes went by, the family also answered questions from firefighters.
For the investigation, the state fire marshal was on the way to the scene and would be assisted by members of the local department, said Gulfport Fire Chief James V. Marenkovic.
They looked at the Ford Focus parked in the driveway near the carport entrance and marveled at how the hood had been blown back by the heat of the fire. The windshield and driver’s window had been smashed. Some of the plastic and metal had been damaged from the heat.
At about 6:40 p.m., it was safe for a team of firefighters who still had oxygen in their tanks to go back inside the home to search for Ciqualla.
It was hoped he had taken refuge under something during the chaos and would be rescued. Marenkovic said it is common for animals to run from danger. So, maybe, he was outside somewhere hiding.
“We’ll be staying at my sister’s home,” said Sharon. “She lives nearby.”
Sharon’s niece talked about how Dezmyne had recently turned 18 and will graduate from high school in about a week. And, how the family had been planning to take a vacation.
Then, firefighters emerged from the front door. One was gently carrying a plastic bag.
In silence, the family knew Ciqualla did not make it.
Gulfport Relief Effort Established for Fire Survivors
Within minutes after Sharon Thomas watched her family’s home burn in Gulfport on the evening of Tuesday, May 1, Pia Goff, who lives across the street, hugged her and said, “things will be taken care of.”
That’s the way people roll in Gulfport. They take care of their own.
Goff also owns Pia’s Trattoria in Gulfport and quickly worked with others in the community like Margarete Tober, president of the Gulfport Neighbors, and members of the Gulfport Historical Society for a relief effort to help Thomas and her two adult children.
Tober said after the council meeting later that same evening that she is working with others to create a formal relief effort.
“I spoke to Police Chief Robert Vincent and we’re going to strategize… We’ll put out a joint statement on Facebook as to what people can do and how they can help.”
On Wednesday, May 2, Gulfport’s History Museum opened at noon to accept donations on behalf of the Gulfport Neighbors, said Goff on Facebook.
“Please bring the family money until we know what they need. Make checks payable to Gulfport Neighbors. The Gulfport Historical Society can accept credit cards and will turn the money collected over to Gulfport Neighbors explicitly to help this family,” she wrote.
Donations can be made online by visiting the “Neighbors Helping Neighbors” post on the Pia’s Trattoria Facebook wall: facebook.com/Pias-Trattoria-137241772999359/.
Donations of money and supplies can also now be brought to the Gulfport Police Department, 2401 53rd St. S., Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. They are in need of non-perishable food and personal hygiene products. Checks can be made out to the Gulfport Neighbors, a 501(c)(3) non-profit. For more information, contact Gail Biron, assistant to the police chief, at 727-893-1049.