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Lightning tears into northwest Bradenton home

MANATEE — Joe Smith built his beloved northwest Bradenton home himself 14 years ago. Tuesday afternoon, he watched it go up in flames after a direct lightning strike on his roof.

Smith, 84, and his wife, Joan, fled their house after a neighbor told them their roof had caught fire. Joan Smith said she heard a deafening crack and her television went out, but she didn’t know flames were rising from the roof of her home in the 1100 block of 92nd Street Northwest, in Hawthorn Park.

“I had turned on the TV to watch a movie, when I heard a tremendous crack,” Joan Smith said. “My neighbor came and told us to get out of the house, and we saw flames shooting out of the roof. A disaster is a disaster.”

Neighbors Jeanine and Diane Balsis heard the blast and ran outside to see smoke and flames. The sisters were the first to call 911, and they pushed a fire alarm button on their house.

“I was walking in my house and the sound sent me to the ceiling,” Diane Balsis said. “I just ran next door and yelled for Joan and Joe to get out.”

West Manatee Fire Rescue Capt. Tom Sousa said firefighters received the call at 12:27 p.m. and arrived six minutes later to find flames, smoke and heavy wind. The Bradenton Fire Department and Cedar Hammock Fire Rescue also sent fire engines to the blaze.

Firefighters had to tear out the Smiths’ garage door, and much of the roof collapsed from the flames and falling rain, causing about $200,000 in damage, according to Sousa. A West Manatee firefighter battling the blaze was taken to Blake Medical Center with minor injuries, Sousa said.

Diane Balsis said just before the lightning tore into the Smith’s home she had called family in Pasco County where tornadoes reportedly touched down.

“I was calling to see how everyone was doing up there. Then boom, we are in the middle of a disaster right here,” she said.

Dozens of neighbors stood in the rain watching as firefighters continued working for about an hour to put out hot spots. The fire was officially put out at 1:30 p.m., Sousa said.

“It was such a loud boom,” said Arthur Brannan, who lives a few houses away from the Smiths. “My power went out for a little while, then I went outside and I could see the flames.”

After the fire, the Smiths stood in their neighbor’s kitchen and lamented over the damage to their home. Joe Smith, a former home builder in Virginia and New Jersey, built the home himself in 1995. The couple had just had the wood floors redone.

“It was his pride and joy,” said Joan Smith, looking at her husband.

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