David Tassinari was in a panic as he looked up the stairwell to his mother-in-law Wendy’s room.
There were flames licking at the ceiling, and smoke pouring down the stairs like a black waterfall. He screamed for her – “Mom, wake up! Wake up!” – as he quickly climbed the stairs. In his haste, he broke his foot before reaching the top, but couldn’t go any further as the smoke filled his lungs. Feeling as if he was ready to pass out, he retreated.
His wife Kim screamed for him to get out, and together they ran outside, turned back towards the house, and watched it burn.
“It was sheer terror,’’ Kim says.
A minute passed, when both noticed a familiar figure walking out of the front door. It was Wendy.
“After that minute of horror, thinking we had lost her, when she did come out, nothing else mattered,’’ David said. “Everything burning was just stuff.”
A month after the fire destroyed their three-year-old, 3,727-sq.-ft. dream home in the Bassett Creek neighborhood in K-Bar Ranch, the Tassinaris are now renting a home right around the corner. They will rebuild on the same site as their burnt-out former residence, and hope to move into their new home in about 14 months.
Kim said the walls will be a different color, the tiles will be different, the layout will be new. It needs to be.
Moving on isn’t easy. Kim has already had multiple nightmares where she wakes up convinced she can smell smoke in the house. David can’t shake the feelings he had that night when he couldn’t reach his mother-in-law, convinced he had left her to die. It’s hard not to replay that night over and over in his head, searching for things he could have done differently.
Together, they have been to counseling, although both say things are getting better.
“The smell of smoke still bothers me,’’ says Kim, who is 47 and works as medical assistant in Wesley Chapel. “And, when I see a fire on TV, I turn away or change the channel.”
“I had to buy him a new one,’’ she says.
David, 49, who works as an agent for USAA Insurance in Tampa Palms, is hopping around on crutches. He broke his right foot that night climbing the stairs to get to Wendy. He doesn’t remember how, he just knows that when he got outside he could see the bone pushing against his skin. He remembers laying on the ground outside, his foot propped up on a chair, as firefighters fought to put out the blaze.
“There was no stopping it,” David says.
Though the personal items lost in the fire don’t matter now, David says, the losses were quite significant. The house still has a pungent burnt odor that hits anyone walking in. The desks and computers in the office at the front of the home look as if they have been coated with a black matte finish. The garage looks like a scene out of Iraq or Afghanistan.
A 2020 Ford F-150, a 2015 Toyota Corolla, a 2005 Yamaha V Star Classic and a John Deere riding mower were all burned beyond recognition, the tires melted into oblivion. Almost all of David’s prized tool collection was destroyed. The wreckage is jolting, but Kim says, “The pictures don’t do it justice.”
Tampa Fire Rescue District Chief Mark Bogush says the Tassinaris were fortunate the garage was not embedded into the house. But, that’s also why the fire was able to build up and why the smoke didn’t get immediately into the home.
David wonders if he had had heat sensors installed, maybe the alarms would have gone off sooner. But, Bogush says smoke detectors are more accurate, though heat sensors can be useful over things like a gas oven and dryers, where there is typically high heat and no smoke.
The Tassinaris’ ordeal started with an alarm going off around 2 a.m. on Nov. 1, as David and Kim slept in their bottom-floor bedroom, and Wendy was sleeping upstairs, almost directly over the garage.
David and Kim thought maybe their son, Ethan, had come in late and forgot the alarm system was set, accidentally tripping it. “I didn’t think anything of it,” Kim says.
David got out of bed and went to check. The front door was closed, so he walked towards the laundry room, and noticed bright orange flickers under the door leading out to the garage. When he opened it, the raging fire charged through and nearly knocked him over.
Kim could hear noise and thought maybe someone had broken into the home, and that David was fighting them. She reached for her glasses and started calling 9-1-1. David then dashed back into the room, and to the bathroom, where he was trying to open windows. He screamed at Kim to call 9-1-1. She still had no idea what was happening.
David had already checked to make sure Ethan wasn’t in his room, and then ran to the stairs. He yelled for Wendy, and tried to fight the fire on his way to her room.
“When I got to the top, I couldn’t breathe,’’ he says. “I was seeing stars. My foot was broken. I couldn’t go any further, I was afraid I would pass out. At that point, I didn’t know what to do.”
David came back down the stairs, where Kim, now fully aware of what was happening, screamed at him to get out. She asked about her mom; David said “I couldn’t get to her.”
They stood in shock near their front lawn.
“I’m standing in the yard thinking my mom is inside burning,’’ Kim says. “I was hysterical.”
It was the longest minute of their lives, before Wendy emerged “without even a single hair singed,” says David, who can now smile about it.
“She walked out like, ‘I’m here, am I late for tea?,’” he says, laughing.
Kim says her mother only remembers bits and pieces of that night. Wendy says she smelled smoke, but thought someone was making something in the kitchen and had burned it. She recalls hearing David yelling.
Then it dawned on her: “I gotta get out of here.”
Wendy remembers briefly being on the stairs, and then walking outside.
David jokes that they call Wendy the “Mother of Dragons,” a reference to the Daenerys Targaryen character from HBO’s “Games of Thrones.”
David thinks maybe a roof or wall collapse diverted some of the smoke and flames, clearing the way for Kim to get out of the house.
A friend suggested that perhaps Kim’s sister, who passed away last year, may have assisted with a bit of divine intervention.
“It’s like she floated out,’’ Kim says. “How she came down those stairs and made it through that….we don’t know. We’re just glad she did.”