TOWN 'N COUNTRY, Fla. (FOX 13) - Another fire has damaged buildings at Captiva Club apartments, marking the third blaze in the last five years. Tenants wonder why this keeps happening as they grieve the loss of a mother who died trying to save her children from the fire.
It started around 3:30 a.m. Wednesday at the apartment complex in Town 'N Country, Florida. When Hillsborough County Fire Rescue crews got there, flames were already shooting through the roof of one 8-unit building and was quickly spreading.
After the flames were extinguished, officials found the bodies of the woman and her two children.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said the woman’s roommate pulled her outside, but she ran back in to get her kids, ages 5 and 10.
Carmella Ortiz identified herself as the roommate and told FOX 13 if the mother could have saved her children from the flames, she would have.
"There had to have been something stopping her," she explained. “She was a good mom. Like every mom, you know, you just want what’s best for your kids.”
Ortiz said her bedroom and the mother's bedroom face each other. The smoke alarms woke them up, and Ortiz, along with her own daughter, exited their bedroom. The now-deceased mother also exited her room.
"We all kind of all three of us just look at each other like, 'What the hell is going on?' We thought it was a false alarm," she recalled.
The fire raged in the apartment above Jeanette Hordge-Smith’s, but she had no idea her family was in danger until she heard banging on her door.
"As he was running toward the front door, I looked out of our back bedroom window and it was like - I call it raining fire," she told FOX 13 News.
They made it out with their one-year-old baby.
"As a mother, I can empathize with another mother who wants to save their kids," Hordge-Smith said.
She and other neighbors were shocked to learn this was one of several fires at the complex. The state fire marshal is now trying to figure out if there’s a connection.
This is the third fire at the Captiva Club Apartments in recent years. In April 2018, about 8 units were destroyed. In 2015, an even larger fire broke out. In October of that year, at least 12 of 16 units were destroyed. Forty people lost their home.
"I’ve lived here eight years and this is really scary," longtime resident Cheryl Setley said.
The complex is 25 years old and sprinklers were not required when the buildings were constructed. The fire marshal believes the buildings have so-called draft stops, which are intended to restrict the spread of a fire in an attic.
Still, tenants wonder whether that's enough.
“I [saw] the first one when it happened, I [saw] the second one, I [saw] this one and I’m like, I just don't know if it's just a coincidence or if there's something going on at the apartment complex," resident Luis Corretjer said.
Apartment managers are not commenting at this point. Some aren't waiting to hear what they have to say.
"I know fires happen but to hear now that this is the third, I think... it's just kind of like, 'Wow, there's a problem here,'" Hordge-Smith said.
Sheriff Chronister said 10 adults and two children were displaced from the fire, and Red Cross is assisting. Residents grabbed what they could during the evacuation. The sidewalk outside their scorched and roofless apartment was filled with personal items, from clothes to baby strollers.
It’s believed the fire first started in a second-floor apartment, but the exact cause of the fire, and the woman and children’s causes of death, are under investigation.