Community rallies to help

Investigators believe the fire started in a backyard shed and workshop that contained chemicals, boat fiberglass and wood. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

Carrie Helliesen spent her birthday morning Thursday waiting for a call back from the American Red Cross while keeping her husband, Doug, and her cellphone close. 

They were all she had left after a Wednesday night fire devastated their home of 40 years at 1221 Laird St. and severely damaged the neighboring home of Walter and Joanna Schmida on Georgia Street.

Crossing the police tape that surrounds her property, the smell of smoke still hanging over the neighborhood, Helliesen managed a laugh and a quick, but genuine smile.

“It’s amazing what shock can do to you, what it can get you through. Isn’t it funny today’s my birthday?” she said, shaking her head for the hundredth time in relief that no one was hurt, including two dogs and three turtles that were rescued by Key West firefighters.

“Not one person got hurt, and the two dogs and three turtles are all fine,” Key West Fire Marshal Jason Barroso told the Keys Weekly on Thursday morning while state investigators surveyed the property and damage and Key West firefighters continued to keep an eye out for “hot spots.” “We’re still investigating, but we initially believe the fire started in the back workshop, which was separate from the house. It had a bunch of chemicals, wood and fiberglass for boat restoration, which made it burn hot and fast. Then it spread to the house, which is a duplex with renters in one portion, and to the side of the neighbors’ house.”

The fire started around 8 p.m. Wednesday, and wasn’t extinguished until about 2 a.m. 

Crews on Thursday morning were awaiting a backhoe to start moving away the charred and melted debris to identify the source of the fire, Barroso said.

He was quick to thank and commend the entire Key West Fire Department as well as firefighters from Naval Air Station Key West, who worked alongside the city’s crew.

“The Navy fire guys saw the smoke and happened to be nearby, so they jumped right in without hesitation. It was all hands on deck for this one,” Barroso said. “We had everyone on and off duty, two ladder trucks, three engines and 35 to 40 guys working this. Thank God no one got hurt, including the two dogs and three turtles.”

The charred metal frame of the workshop was all that remained atop a mound of bicycle parts, boats, tools and other indistinguishable items. The home itself is a duplex, with renters living in the portion closest to the shed. 

“They, too, lost everything,” Helliesen said, again shaking her head. 

At first glance, the house looks OK from the front on Laird Street, where trees still shade the structure. But a closer look at the second floor, roof and interior reveals the extent of the fire, smoke and water damage.

“The structure isn’t safe, with all that damage and the weight of the water we threw on it,” Barroso told the Keys Weekly. “We were able to go in today and get some medications for the owners. We’re still investigating and evaluating it, but it could be a total loss. The state investigators are here and those guys are great.”

Helliesen, who worked for decades for the American Cancer Society in Key West, said the fire department had offered to go in with them later on Thursday, “just to see if any personal items are at all salvageable.” She and Doug had left their home just minutes before the fire started to walk to a nearby pier for sunset. “I had my phone, but I didn’t take my purse or anything. Thankfully, Doug had brought his wallet. And we’re dogsitting, so we had brought our friends’ dog with us on the walk, thank God.”

The couple is staying temporarily with friends, and were working with the American Red Cross for assistance. Neighbors Walter and Joanna Schmida, in their 80s, also are displaced from their home until given the all-clear. They escaped their house safely, but without their wallets or Walter’s heart medication.

Facebook lit up Wednesday night and Thursday with offers of assistance, clothing, photo and art restoration for the Helliesens. 

A GoFundMe account has been established to help Carrie and Doug Helliesen recover from the fire that destroyed their Laird Street home Wednesday night at Additional efforts are underway. 

Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.