Victor Olson was working on a fence in his Midtown backyard Wednesday when his normally quiet neighborhood suddenly filled with sirens, smoke and an onslaught of passers-by.
"I heard the sirens before I smelled anything, and by the time I got to the front yard the house was already going up," Olson said, pointing down the street where fire had claimed a neighbor's home. "There were flames about 15 feet above the roof. It went fast. Very fast."
Key West firefighters responded at 12:58 p.m. to 1415 Eliza St. to find the house fully engulfed, but thankfully a couple off-duty Naval Air Station Key West firefighters were nearby, said Key West Fire Department Division Chief Michael Davila.
The two off-duty firemen opened a door to the house and helped an elderly man escape. There were no other people in the house. The 78-year-old man was taken to Lower Keys Medical Center, where he was treated for first- and second-degree burns, said city of Key West spokeswoman Alyson Crean. He was expected to be treated and released to family, Crean said.
Crean could not confirm the man's name Wednesday. Monroe County Property Appraiser's records indicate Vincente Perez owns the 1,160-square-foot home.
There were no other injuries reported.
Thick, black smoke could be seen from most parts of the island as the fire drew residents from all over Midtown, curious as to what was burning. Police officers moved to cordon off the 1400 block of Eliza and block access from Florida, Pearl and Virginia streets, which quickly filled with smoke when the wind shifted. The neighborhood smelled of charred wood and smoldering plastic.
Firefighters were on the blaze quickly, as the house is less than three blocks from police and fire headquarters on North Roosevelt Boulevard. One passing bicyclist shouted that he thought the new middle school was on fire, based on the smoke plume's location.
The house was full of collectables and other things that helped fuel the blaze, Davila said, adding that firefighters had no choice but to focus their attention on saving nearby houses. Firefighters in a second truck approached from Virginia Street and battled the blaze from the rear to try to save a house directly behind the flames.
"This house was fully engulfed," Davila said of the Eliza Street home. "There was no hope in saving this house. The roof collapsed. It's a total loss and I imagine it's going to be condemned. They would have to rebuild the walls and roof."
Keys Energy Services disconnected power to the block as crews evacuated most of the 1400 block, Davila said.
The cause of the fire was unknown Wednesday. Crews were putting out hot spots into early evening. It looked like the blaze started in the rear of the house, Davila said.
"The back of the house has most of the damage," he said. "It looks like it started there and moved toward the front."
Pearl Street resident Mike Mongo was among the locals looking on as fire crews put out the blaze.
"By the time I got here our firefighters were already all over it," Mongo said, leaning on his bicycle and adding that Key West must have the fastest firefighters in the state.
"They're pretty incredible," Mongo said.