A New Year’s Eve home fire sparks a community’s compassion

A $10-a-plate pasta dinner benefit is planned this week to help a family who lost nearly all of their possessions when a New Year’s Eve fire raged through their Heritage Harbor home in Lutz.

The fundraiser also will include raffles, a  50/50 drawing and games  — with 100 percent of the proceeds going to help Steve Dorsett, his wife, Maggi, and their children, 20-year-old Austin and 16-year-old Becca.

During a recent interview with The Laker/Lutz News, Steve Dorsett recounted the course of events, on what began as a quiet New Year’s Eve — with the family at home, along with Becca’s two best friends, who were spending the night.

Residents of Heritage Harbor help the Dorsett family, in the aftermath of a destructive New Year’s Eve fire. Kelley McHale is wearing red and Cynthia Lamb is in black. A crew of helpers turned out in force on New Year’s morning. (Courtesy of Lisa Novorska)

The family had just returned that day from a trip to Fort Worth to see Steve’s mom, for Christmas.

“We were just hanging out in the backyard,” Steve said, noting he’d grilled chicken that evening and was just finishing his meal.

“I was going to walk back outside in the front, and just see if there was any fireworks,” he said, noting his son, Austin, who is autistic and nonverbal, loves fireworks.

As Steve was walking out front, he noticed smoke coming out of a door.

He thought: ‘What the heck is that.’

“I flipped the handle and pushed. The garage was already lit up,” he said.

When he saw that, he started yelling at everyone to get out of the house.

Becca and her two friends had just come down to grab a bite to eat, Steve said.

He thought everybody was out, including the family’s two goldendoodles, Lucky and Sophie.

But then, he said:  “Maggi, she looked at me, and said: ‘Where’s Austin?’

“Oh, my God,” Steve said. “I went back in the house. I was just looking for anything that moved. I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t see 10 feet in front of me. I couldn’t breathe. I was walking through the house. I had a flashlight. It didn’t help.”

Within a few minutes, though, he heard someone yelling from outside that they’d found Austin and he was OK.

“That’s when I came back out,” Steve said. “I collapsed when I got out. The EMT guys came and grabbed me. My arm was all burned.”

The fire broke out around 10:20 p.m. It was unrelenting.

At one point, its flames shot so high they could be seen for miles away, Steve said.

He knows that because a former neighbor, who now lives several miles away, took a photo of the blaze, not knowing whose house was on fire.

Firefighters weren’t the only ones who responded.

“The neighborhood was amazing. Absolutely amazing. We probably had 100 people (that night).

“Everybody came over. (Senior) Pastor Ken Whitten came over, from Idlewild (Baptist Church). “That’s the church that we go to.

“From the story I heard, he didn’t know what was going on, he just saw a bunch of fire trucks and figured ‘I’d better follow.’

“It was maybe a spirit-led thing,” Steve said.

Among the most treasured items lost in the fire was a display that honored Austin and Becca’s dedication ceremonies at Idlewild.

Nearly everything was destroyed by the flames, or smoke or water.

Firefighters were there until the early morning hours, making sure the fire was out.

Steve was up late, trying to report an insurance claim.

“I fell asleep at 4:30 or 5. I woke up about 8.

“I went and put my nasty clothes back on. I walked outside and there were at least 25 to 30 of our neighbors. They were out there, in gloves and boots, and wearing their masks,” he said.

They had trash bags and they were sorting through the rubble, to see what could be saved.

One neighbor secured Maggi’s jewelry.

There have been countless acts of generosity, Steve said. One friend loaned the family a truck. Another is taking care of their dogs.

This image of the garage offers a glimpse of the devastation. (Courtesy of Beth Gaddis)

Others have provided meals and comfort.

And now, their friends and the community are organizing the pasta dinner fundraiser.

The cause of the fire is not 100 percent certain, Steve said. He knows it wasn’t fireworks because there weren’t any nearby. The insurance company’s private inspector told Steve it was most likely an electrical fire in the attic.

Whatever the cause, the family carries on.

Becca, an avid softball player, is gearing up for a new season.

Austin continues to attend the exceptional education program at Steinbrenner High School.

Maggi is a nurse at St. Joseph’s Hospital-North.

Steve, who is self-employed, is focusing on the family’s needs and making sure they can rebuild the house — right where it is.

“Heritage Harbor is unique and I use that term specifically because unique is supposed to mean ‘one of a kind.’

“As tragic as it is for us, it (the fire) has been a very positive thing in a lot of ways —not just bringing our neighbors back together, but also, old friends that we haven’t seen. People I don’t even know.

“It’s amazing,” Steve said.

Want to help?
What: $10-a-plate Pasta Dinner
Where: Heritage Harbor Club House, 19502 Heritage Harbor Parkway, in Lutz
When: Feb. 1, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Details: This fundraiser will benefit the Dorsett family, of Heritage Harbor, who lost nearly all of their possessions, including their home, two cars and the contents of their home from a New Year’s Eve fire.
Besides the food, there will be a 50/50 drawing, raffles and games.
All of the proceeds will go to the family.
RSVP by Jan. 30 at tinyurl.com/yajpjq2s.
Those who want to help, but can’t attend, can contribute online at GoFundMe.com/friends-lost-home-in-new-years-eve-fire.

Published January 30, 2019

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