Christmas tree fire ignites Lakewood Ranch holiday spirit

jbartolone@bradenton.comDecember 31, 2013 

Staff Photographer

Greg Maxwell of Paul Davis Restorations of Sarasota evaluates the interior damage caused by a fire at the Carmassi family home in Lakewood Ranch's Central Park neighborhood Monday evening, which spread from the family's Christmas tree. Neighbors turned out to assist the family with food, money and clothing and shelter for the family and their two pets. PAUL VIDELA/Bradenton Herald


LAKEWOOD RANCH — Brad Carmassi’s hands were still coated with black soot Tuesday afternoon. “I’ve washed these 10 times and it won’t come off,” he said.

Carmassi spent the day cleaning up and assessing the damage from a fire that ravaged his Central Park home the night before. But he and his family are safe and thankful for an outpouring of support from their neighbors after almost everything inside their new house was blackened, singed or destroyed when their Christmas tree went up in a blaze.

The Carmassis were at home just after 6 p.m. Monday when Brad heard his wife, Paula, screaming in the other room. “The entire tree was on fire,” Brad Carmassi said. “It got so bad so fast. It lit within a minute.”

The family, including son, Zak, 13, and their dog, Crosby, immediately exited the house as it quickly filled with black smoke. Brad broke a window from the outside to rescue the family’s cat, Autumn. He grabbed a hose from the backyard to extinguish the blaze, but it was hopeless.

“It was fast, and it was horrible,” said Carmassi, who was treated for smoke inhalation Monday night at Lakewood Ranch Medical Center, where his wife works as a registered nurse.

The family suspects an electrical problem at the outlet where the tree lights were plugged in, but the cause of the fire was still officially under investigation. East Manatee Fire Rescue officials couldn’t be reached for comment.

All that was left of the 9-foot fir was a burned piece of wood sitting in the driveway Tuesday. Near it were the melted, blackened remnants of a tree stand and train set that belonged to Carmassi as a young boy.

Inside, the walls and furniture were stained black. The couch was singed and light switches had melted from the heat. The thick smell of smoke permeated the home, which the Carmassis built in April after moving to Florida from Pittsburgh.

A few houses down the street on Forest Park Circle, friend and neighbor Kim Gennocro and her family were greeting a steady stream of visitors Tuesday dropping off clothes, toiletries and gift cards for the Carmassis. One woman, a Mary Kay representative, donated makeup for Paula.

Gennocro, who had gotten word out through the Central Park Facebook page, said she was overwhelmed with the community response.

“I’ve had non-stop doorbell ringing,” said Gennocro as she piled donated clothes on her kitchen table and stacks of envelopes on the counter. “It’s been amazing,” said Paula Carmassi, moved to tears by the show of support from neighbors, many still strangers.

Maria Lenz doesn’t know the family but came by to see how she could help.

“I felt awful,” she said. “It can happen to anyone. What a way to ring in the new year.” Brad Carmassi said he was left almost speechless by the support from Gennocro’s family and others.

“These guys are awesome. This neighborhood, every single one of them, is fantastic,” he said, also thanking the firefighters and emergency personnel who came to their aid.

It may take up to two months for their home to be repaired, meaning the family could be living out of a hotel room for days or weeks ahead, but they do have insurance.

Brad and Paula spent Monday night at Gennocro’s, while Zak stayed with his grandmother. Brad was able to grab Zak’s new computer from the house during the fire, one of the few Christmas presents salvaged, “so at least he’ll have something comforting,” Brad said. Gennocro was planning a neighborhood New Year’s Eve party at her house, where she hoped to take her friends’ minds off their misfortune, for just a few hours at least. “We’ve just gotta carry on,” Brad Carmassi said.

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