Clearwater apartments evacuated because of fire

CLEARWATER, Fla. (WFLA) – A fire displaced eight people who live at the Top of the World apartment complex near Clearwater this Christmas Eve. Nine units are no longer liveable. The fire caused an estimated $420,000 in damage, officials said.

The stubborn fire started around 2:55 p.m. in a first-floor kitchen at the complex, located at 2021 Australia Way West. It took off, catching residents and firefighters by surprise. It started in Emily and DiStefano’s apartment. “I was making Italian Christmas cookies,” Emily told News Channel 8.

They watched with dismay as firefighters battled the three-alarm fire that just would not be extinguished. Emily said she put her holiday treats on the stove and dashed out for a quick 15-minute trip. “We went to the store. I turned off, I’m sure I turned off the stove. But there was hot grease on the stove. So that might have been what the fire was about,” she said.

Officials confirmed it was an accidental kitchen fire.

“We weren’t in there, so that’s good, or asleep. If it happened during the night,” Emily DiStefano told News Channel 8.

Firefighters thought they’d accomplished a 15-minute knockdown. Crews even prepared to leave and return to their stations. “The crews on scene believed they had the fire out. It got into a void space in the wall and went up to the second and third floors,” Assistant Clearwater Fire Marshal Ron Neuberger said.

Flames returned with much more intensity, gutting most of the first, second and third floors. The Christmas Eve heat and humidity took its toll on a few firefighters, who recuperated with oxygen and rest.

The fire forced as many as 80 residents from their homes. Crews from Dunedin, Palm Harbor, Safety Harbor and Largo were called in. They poured thousands of gallons of water on the fire.

Sharon McKutchen’s biggest concern during the ordeal was her 10-year-old cat, Princess. Princess is OK.

McKutchen’s ruined belongings aren’t on her mind. “It’s just stuff. Main thing is everybody is okay and in all the condos so, that’s what counts,” Mckutchen said.

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