Flora-Bama employees respond quickly to save lives during devastating Perdido fire
By Fran Thompson
The two friends don’t normally stop for an omelet across the street at the Waffle House following their evening shifts at the Flora-Bama. But on June 19 they did just that. And there is a good chance that what seemed then like an innocuous decision saved people’s lives.
Around 4 a.m. on June 19, a fire engulfed 14 units at Key Harbour, spread to Pescador Landing, where 12 units burnt down and then jumped to a single family home on Ole River in the 17000 block of Perdido Key Drive before firefighters were able to completely distinguish the blaze around 7 a.m.
Robin Lusk (Right), a night manager at the Flora-Bama, and Janice Curtis (Left), a shift lead with the iconic roadhouse’s customer service staff, were just leaving the Waffle House when they heard a pop that drew their attention. A second pop definitely came from east of the state line where they saw an inferno already rising above Key Harbour condos.
“At that point, we didn’t even say anything to each other. We just both got in our cars and started driving towards the fire,’’ Lusk said.
Both women called 911 on their way. Lusk was the third person to report the fire. But it was still 15 minutes before fire departments could respond.
By the time the women got to Key Harbour, the fire was coming up around them and spreading quickly in the direction of Ole River. One condo was fully on fire. They began to knock on doors.
“Actually, we were banging on the door as hard as we could,’’ Curtis said.
“We just did what came natural. What we would hope anyone would do if we were in that situation,’’ Lusk added.
As residents came out of the condos, they also began helping to evacuate the complex.
Curtis said her main concern at the time was that there were people in the condos that the fire prevented them from getting to.
“It was a terrible feeling wondering if there were people down there who couldn’t get out,’’ she said.
Soon after, two waitresses from the Waffle House arrived and started banging on doors at the adjacent Pescador Landing. Two more waitresses from the Flora-Bama and others also helped.
“The noise was unbelievable when we got there,’’ Lusk said. “It was a very loud cracking sound. It was like the fire was alive. It was so hot and unbelievable how fast that fire was moving. It was like the heat was filling the air. It took your breath away.’’
As Lusk and Curtis went from door to door awakening residents, they were joined by others trying to help.
“The great thing as we started getting people up, they started doing the same thing. It was neighbors helping neighbors. These were all full-time residents, not people renting by the day or week,” Lusk said. “They were able to make sure they were all accounted for. They knew who was supposed to be there. At one point there was one woman who was still missing. Everybody was very relieved and there was a lot of kissing, hugging and crying when she appeared down by the water.’’
By the time firefighters arrived, evacuees and those who responded first stayed to see if they could help.
“There really was no way we could leave anyway, with all the firetrucks and hoses in the area,’’ Lusk said.
“It is still kind of a blur. The fire was growing so fast. I knew some of those folks who lost everything. It really affects you to see something like that.’’
Escambia County authorities reported only two minor injuries, including an Orange Beach firefighter who was treated for smoke inhalation. The property destroyed was valued at a minimum of $5 million.
Curtis said she thinks it was divine intervention that put the two friends in a position to help save lives.
“I think God just put us there for a reason,’’ she said. “We were in the right place at the right time to help.”
Lusk said she was heartbroken by what people had lost, but that the whole experience has renewed her faith in the goodness inherent in most people and made her proud of community.
“This was about people coming together to help. The community response was immediate. This showed that there are good people all around us.’’
The Flora-Bama is accepting monetary donations to help the victims of the fire in its gift shop. Perdido Bay United Methodist Church is also accepting donations, as is The American Red Cross, which was on the scene with provisions soon after sunrise.
At least 75 firefighters from various departments including Escambia County, Pensacola, Santa Rosa County, Orange Beach and Lillian responded to the fire
After sunrise, the women headed home to try to get some sleep before returning to the Flora-Bama for another shift. That proved difficult for both women after what they witnessed. Word had spread about their heroic efforts and they were given a hero’s welcome when back at work.
“If my house is on fire I would hope someone would do the same for me, if they could,’’ Curtis said.
“We are not heros. We just did what we were supposed to do,” Lusk said.
Although authorities have not determined where the fire started, media reports have stated the fire started when an air conditioned caught on fire. There is no doubt that windy conditions and the close proximity of wooden structures to each other contributed to the fire spreading so quickly.
American Red Cross reported that 28 families (40 people) were effected by the fire.
“This is still shocking. Its’ still surreal to me,’’ Lusk said a week after the fire. “When you see what happened to these people, you don’t know what to say to them. Their lives were forever changed. This caused a lot of grief for a lot of folks.’’
Lusk added that she was not willing to call it a silver lining to a terrible disaster, but she is proud of the Perdido community.
“You always see on the news that people don’t care about each other anymore. But I’ve seen lots of people pulling together to try to help in our little community,’’ she said.