Duplex blaze destroys family's Christmas

By Pat Moore, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 27, 2002

HOBE SOUND -- In the eerie darkness of Pam Hamshar's fire-blackened living room Thursday, a charred music box chimed We Wish You A Merry Christmas all on its own.

A brand-new musical keyboard, melted but still recognizable, played muffled tunes in the soot nearby.

The day after Christmas was anything but merry for Hamshar and her three children, after an electrical fire spread to the family's Christmas tree and quickly ravaged their duplex apartment at 8411 S.E. Pine Circle.

The Hamshars' 9-year-old black labrador retriever, Lady, and their cat, Cora, died in the 7 a.m. blaze.

"My son woke me up," Hamshar said outside the apartment Thursday morning. "I came out of the bedroom and the tree was on fire -- flames touching the ceiling. I came right out the front door."

She said her 12-year-old son, Sean, woke when he heard crackling and yelled "Fire!"

He ran out the front door with her, but 16-year-old daughter Tina couldn't get past the smoke in the hallway. She broke her bedroom window and jumped to safety, her mother said.

"I thought she came out with us, but she heard Sean and apparently thought he was joking," Hamshar said.

Her older daughter, Carley Johnson, 20, spent the night in West Palm Beach. After arriving home Thursday, she sat in the front yard and sorted through the few pictures spared by the fire.

"If it wasn't for my neighbor's fire hose, we wouldn't have saved this much," Johnson said.

Jarett Frye heard his neighbors screaming and grabbed his fire extinguisher, then the garden hose and rushed next door.

"When I came outside, there were flames coming out their front door," he said. "I busted out the windows with the extinguisher and sprayed the couches. Then, I got inside the kitchen and sprayed it down."

The fire department arrived quickly and finished the job.

"It was pretty involved when we got there, but we got it down pretty quick," Martin County Fire-Rescue acting Battalion Chief Charles O'Hara said.

He estimated the damage to the building and contents at $40,000 to $50,000.

State Fire Marshal investigator Al Schiller said the fire was caused by an electrical short in the outlet where the Christmas tree was plugged in with too many other lights.

When they went to bed Wednesday night, Hamshar said they forgot to turn off the lights to the tree and a string that ran across her china cabinet.

There wasn't a smoke detector in the apartment, she said.

A charred trunk was all that remained of the Christmas tree, with blackened remnants of gifts scattered around the room.

"I just said yesterday this was going to be the last year I'd have a real tree," she said.

Hamshar said her dog and cat always slept in her room, but she didn't see them when she and her children fled from the burning home.

"They probably got scared with the smoke," she said.

Once outside the burning home, Hamshar ran and knocked on the door of the other half of her duplex, waking the couple inside.

The adjoining apartment suffered smoke damage but no one was injured, fire officials said.

"You never think this could happen to you," said Hamshar, who works at Scooters restaurant in Hobe Sound.

"All our Christmas presents are gone -- my son's Xbox, his new skateboard. He finally got the BB gun he waited for so long," she said. "My daughter got a new television. I bought them new clothes and shoes."

The family planned to stay with a neighbor Thursday night.

Hamshar broke into tears as volunteer firefighter Chris Buchanan handed her a $500 check from the Hobe Sound Volunteer Fire Department.

Another $500 will be donated by the Martin County Firefighters and Paramedics Local 29 and 59, he said.

Donations also may be made to an account opened in Hamshar's name at Wachovia Bank.