PINELLAS PARK – A Nov. 8 fire destroyed the home of a Pinellas Park family, leaving them displaced and living in a motel.
“It’s a shame,” said Ward Blazier, a representative with Southern Fidelity Insurance, while evaluating the damage. “The structure is a total loss. They’re homeless. They lost almost all of their belongings. It’s a terrible thing.”
Neighbors say the fire broke out at 3420 Beechwood Terrace N. after the family left a frying pan of oil unattended on a grill.
Kevin Nguyen, who lives next door and had minor property damage due to the fire, said he was cooking on a grill in his own yard when it started. He tried to help them put the flames out at first, grabbing a hose in his yard. “But they engulfed the house,” he said. So he ran from his yard. “I thought to myself, ‘If I stay here, I die.’ A hose might help with a small fire, but if it’s a big fire, you can’t do nothing.”
“[My family] sent me to Walmart, and when I came back, the house was gone,” said Peter Souvannalay, who lives at the home with his family. Souvannalay said his family came to the United States from its native Laos and has lived in its Pinellas Park home since about 1990.
As the fire spread, another neighbor, Daniel Jensen, also came out to tackle the blaze, armed with a garden hose and intent on keeping the flames from moving to his home.
Once Pinellas Park police arrived on the scene, they attempted to keep Jensen away from the fire, said Capt. Sanfield Forseth. Jensen repeatedly kept running back to fight the flames with his garden hose, Forseth said, so police tased him. “He was told several times to stay out of the danger zone and was removed by police.”
Neighbors Nguyen and Luis Rosa feel the police overstepped their boundaries.
“I know they have their reasons,” Rosa said, “but I think they went about it the wrong way.”
Rosa said after police initially asked Jensen to step back from the scene, they ignored him to talk amongst themselves.
“They should have been more proactive in controlling the situation. People get excited during situations like this. He was trying to protect his home. They should have paid a lot more attention to him and tried to calm him down.”
Forseth said the use of a taser was appropriate given the situation. “[Jensen] showed all types of aggression, yelling, punching cars, kicking, and he kept going back [to the scene] and ignoring orders to stay back,” he said. “He wasn’t just putting himself in danger, but putting the first responders in danger as well.”
Jensen was taken to the hospital and treated for smoke inhalation, Forseth said, which indicates he was too close to the fire.
Calls to Jensen, and his attorney, Heidi Imhof, were not returned by press time.
As for the displaced family, the Red Cross has been providing them with aid, a spokesperson for the organization said. While she didn’t have access to their file, the spokesperson said in these cases, where a single family has lost everything, the Red Cross would put them up in a motel for a few nights and ensure their basic needs are taken care of.
“Thank the lord for the Red Cross for putting them up over the weekend,” Blazier said.
The neighborhood is also stepping up as well, Nguyen and Rosa said, collecting clothing, money and other donations.
“It’s a really nice neighborhood to live in,” said Rosa.