Cigarette caused fire at USF apartments

- A day after fire ripped through a three-story apartment building near USF's campus, some students were able to return to their damaged apartments to salvage what they could. Others had nothing to return to.

According to The Province apartment management, 48 students are without a home after Thursday's fire. Many units suffered smoke and water damage as firefighters worked to put out the 3-alarm blaze. Four apartments have been deemed total losses.

Caroline Punzak, a USF nursing student said she first found out about the fire when a roommate sent a text with a picture showing flames creeping up their building's facade. Within minutes, a Facebook live stream of aerial news footage would show the magnitude of the fire.

"There was a live video of our apartment, [the helicopter's camera was] zooming in on our apartment. My room. I could see my TV falling off of the wall that is was mounted on," said Punzak.

Little remains of the apartment she shared with four other USF juniors. The apartment's roof and floor were consumed by the fire. Any possessions that may have survived fell into a heap of debris in the floors below.     

"Our clothes are gone, our shoes are gone, our jewelry is gone," said roommate Molly Copeland. "Letters from our grandparents, who are no longer with us, are gone."

"We don't know what to do. What do you do when everything you have is gone? How do you start rebuilding that?" said roommate Ashley Bishop. "It's just overwhelming because how do you know where to start?"

Adding to the confusion, according to the roommates and their parents, the guarantors of their leases, is the response from building management.

"Management didn't come to speak to us at all," said USF parent Robbie Muller. "They were very concerned about the business side of it, which I understand, but the human element of these girls and others being displaced wasn't a priority of theirs."

"I'm very disappointed in the way this was handled," added parent Marsha Copeland. "I'm the guarantor on this lease and I never received a phone call, never got anything. Today we met with the area manager and we brought up that we would not be paying rent for this month, since there was nothing to pay rent for, and she said she'd have to check on that. I explained to her that that really wasn't a question."

On Thursday Province management said displaced residents would be put up in hotel rooms while detectives investigated the fire. Punzak says she signed up to receive a hotel room, but was never contacted and is still unclear on where she will be able to stay in the short term, let alone the remainder of the semester. Punzak, Copeland, Bishop and their moms attended a meeting with building management on Friday, but said very few answers were given.

"They should be doing something other than saying, 'sorry that your apartment burned down,'" said Bishop.

"I understand it's a stressful situation for everyone but at the end of the day they have a place to go home to, they have clothes to change into. We don't have anything," added Punzak.
Punzak says only one of the four students living in her apartment had renter's insurance.

"With student housing, it just never occurred to me [to purchase renter's insurance] and I wish it had," said Muller.

In a statement from Province spokesperson Gina Cowart, management said tenants were not required to show proof of insurance. "We strongly encourage renters insurance and have a provider to facilitate easy access."

Looming midterms and other assignments are adding to the stress of losing books, laptops and all of their clothes, but the three friends say they're grateful possessions were the only things lost in the fire.

"One of my roommates was in there. She possibly could've died and we have two dogs that live there, what if they'd been home? We have a lot to be lucky for too," said Punzak.  

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