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Blaze engulfs apartment of two students

Little was left of the USF students Tom Ivan and Matt Belton’s apartment after a fire early Monday morning. ORACLE PHOTOS/JOSE LOPEZ, JR.

click HERE to see resident Jake Herrick’s footage of the fire.

Hillsborough County firefighters put out the flaming front end of a pickup truck parked at an off-campus apartment complex early Monday morning.

They then closely inspected the eight units near the extinguished flames for smoldering embers that could later ignite, and told the dozens of evacuated tenants waiting outside they could safely go back to their apartments.

Just one hour later, 12 trucks and 30 firefighters were back, battling 40-foot-flames that consumed the roof and gutted the interior of two of the previously inspected units at Stony Creek Pointe Condominiums, a complex on the corner of Fletcher Avenue North and 52nd Street that houses mostly students.

One of the second-floor condos engulfed by flames at Stony Creek was rented by two USF students, Tom Ivan, a junior majoring in statistics and his roommate, Matt Belton, a junior majoring in geography.

“We lost everything but the clothes we were wearing and our cell phones and laptop computers,” Ivan wrote in a Facebook message to the Oracle. “But we are very fortunate to not have been hurt.”

The family in the apartment directly behind Ivan and Belton’s, which was also consumed by flames, escaped safely as well, Ivan said.

Two other units had water and smoke damage. Those apartments and two more are without power until a county inspector tells management at Stony Creek that electricity can be restored without sparking another blaze, construction personnel at the site of the fire said.

The cause of the fire that burned the pickup and its connection to the second blaze are still under investigation, said Hillsborough County Fire Department spokesman Ray Yeagley, though he said he thought it was possible the two incidents were linked.

Firefighters made visual checks throughout the two-story, eight-apartment block of condos near the first fire, and used thermal imagers to detect sources of heat but found nothing, Yeagley said.

“After the fire in the pickup was out, (firefighters) went through that place with a fine-toothed comb for an hour,” he said. “I wasn’t there, but from what they told me, I would have felt comfortable walking away from that fire.”

Around 2 a.m., Lisa Hearne, 29, a USF alumna who lives in one of the second floor units across from Ivan, said she woke to a bang on her door and that she and her husband, David, who works in USF’s information technology department, needed to get out of their apartment.

After the fire department’s inspection, they were allowed to return.

An hour later, around 4:30 a.m., another neighbor was knocking at their door.

This time, she said, there was smoke billowing down the hallways and flames licking the ceiling of the patio of Ivan’s condo.

“We had really felt safe,” Hearne said. “We went back to sleep. If (the neighbor) hadn’t woken us up, who knows if we would have had time to get out.”

She and her husband gathered their coats and two white cats, Curtis and Caelan, and rushed down the stairs. She said she saw smoke funneling out of the apartment behind Ivan’s as she left.

“Within minutes flames had engulfed the entire roof,” Hearne said. “It was so hot we could feel the flames from across the street.”

Ryan Naughtin, who lived in one of the apartments below Ivan’s, said neighbors also banged on his door and told him to get out.

He said he’s always wanted to use a fire extinguisher and took his opportunity to grab one nearby and spray it at the flames.

“It was a pathetic little extinguisher,” he said. “I hit it with the spray, but it didn’t matter.”

Maria Gonzalez, a junior majoring in theater performance who lives on the other side of the mason firewall dividing her unit from Ivan’s, said the roof of her apartment came close to catching fire. She lives there with her sister, Paula, a senior majoring in computer science.

“I was so scared that our apartment would burn,” she said. “I thought for sure the flames would leap over the wall.”

Most of the residents of the eight condos affected by the fire are staying with friends or family nearby. Ivan said he and Belton are staying with their parents in Brandon for now and will likely move into an empty apartment in Stony Creek.

No injuries to residents were reported, though two firefighters suffered from heat exhaustion, Yeagley said.

Hearne’s cats are also fine.

“But they’re a little stressed,” she said.

David Guidi can be reached at (813)974-1888 or