As they scrambled door to door to alert the residents of Key Harbour to run for their lives, Robin Lusk and Janice Curtis were amazed by the number of people who slowed down to stare at the scene but offered no help.
They and four other women were at the giant fire nearly 15 minutes before firefighters arrived, and are credited with helping to save the lives of dozens of people after flames engulfed 14 condominium units at Key Harbour and 12 units at Pescador Landing in the 17000 block of Perdido Key Drive on the Florida-Alabama line.
“People have come up to us and called us heroes but I look at them and say no, we just did what we were supposed to do,” Lusk said. “If two old broads over 50 can go over there and help people then maybe other people will take a chance and lift their head, look around and be willing to help somebody else. It’s a little bit like paying it forward.”
The women said it was divine intervention that placed them in the right place at the right time to help. After a 10-hour shift at the Flora-Bama, Curtis was hungry and asked Lusk to join her at the Waffle House. Lusk was reluctant but went anyway.
Around 4 a.m. as the duo walked out of the restaurant they heard a loud pop followed quickly by another.
“We both turned to the sound and saw a glow. In unison, we said ‘fire!’ Neither one of us said anything to the other about ‘get in the car let’s go’ but we both headed that way,” Lusk said.
At the scene Curtis said she “felt like I was stuck for just a minute, and Robin said we should go beat on doors. There was a man out with a water hose spraying down his house and a lady was out there just kind of spinning in circles. You could tell she was frantic and we told them to get their cars and get out.”
The women could see that there was just one unit on fire but the flames were growing and spreading quickly, fueled by the wind.
“We get down in it and it was crazy and only half of one unit was on fire at that point but it was growing quickly and getting worse. It was so hot down in there. It was like a convection oven,” the women explained, finishing each other’s sentences.
As homeowners opened their front door the women recognized them as people they knew or encountered regularly at the Flora-Bama.
“We didn’t know it till we started banging on doors but those are people we know. They may not know us by name but they know us by sight because of being here. Fred, who is a customer here, didn’t come to the door at first. He thought a drunk from the bar was beating on his door,” Curtis said.
The women helped grab pets and encouraged homeowners to drive their cars away as the fire spread.
“The sound, that roar, it was horrible. It was like a living, breathing thing. Like a dragon. It was bad,” Curtis said.
Lusk added, “It was like a monster from a movie but this monster was eating people’s homes.”
While the women canvassed Key Harbour homes, two Waffle House waitresses joined the effort and began banging on doors in Pescador Landing.
Two more waitresses from the Flora-Bama helped evacuate a vacationing family.
“We had children coming out holding their teddy bears and their dogs and it looked like a war zone down there,” Lusk said as her voice quivered. “That is the only way you can describe it, like you are at ground zero of a war.”
Fire crews arrived on the scene roughly 15-20 minutes after Robin’s initial 911 call. The residents gathered away from the inferno to allow firefighters to work as the sun rose.
“We tried to comfort as many of them as we could, but, what do you say to those people? You don’t know what to say,” Lusk said.
Tears welled in Curtis’ eyes as she recalled the scene.
“As a kid I watched my best friend’s house burn to the ground and they lost everything they owned. It brought back that feeling,” Curtis said. “The people that were over there where the fire started, they weren’t here on vacation, they live there. Those are their homes.”
As the wind whipped the flames firefighters’ efforts were hampered by a passing truck that made a U-turn in front of the complex, rolled over the fire hose and uncoupled it from the hydrant.
“Water was spraying all over the street and the firefighters lost pressure,” Curtis said. “We had to run down there to tell them so they could re-attach the hose.”
By 4:44 a.m., all but two buildings at Key Harbour Condominium Complex were fully engulfed. By 5 a.m. the fire had reached 17290 Perdido Key Dr. and was quickly gobbling it as well.
Finally, around 7:15 a.m., the women were able to return to their vehicles and head home to rest before their next shift at Flora-Bama. Both ladies said sleep was impossible. Neither one has had time to stop and process the tragedy.
Wednesday evening, before their shift began, they returned to the scene. The once tranquil neighborhood was now blackened skeletons of wood beams and little remained of the lives that were built there.
“Oh my good God, it’s not the same place. A day ago there were beautiful townhomes and now there is nothing there but a black hole,” Lusk said.
Throughout their shift Wednesday night many survivors and their friends came into the bar to thank them. Many called them heroes. The women said they are not. Instead, they are simply good neighbors.
“I did what I would want someone to do for me,” Curtis said. “If my house is on fire I hope someone would come and bank on my door and say get out of here.”