Miami-Dade County

A homeless man saves others from a fire — then he’s ordered to leave his ‘home’

Homeless man wakes residents in burning Miami building

Thomas Umstead saw his neighbors' building burning around 5 a.m. Wednesday. Residents told Miami Fire Rescue that Umstead woke the sleeping residents and got a mother and child out of the building.
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Thomas Umstead saw his neighbors' building burning around 5 a.m. Wednesday. Residents told Miami Fire Rescue that Umstead woke the sleeping residents and got a mother and child out of the building.

A man who lives in an abandoned parking lot helped neighbors living in apartments escape their burning building — and it led to the loss of his asphalt spot.

Thomas Umstead will take that deal.

“I always wanted to be at the right place at the right time instead of the wrong place at the wrong time,” Umstead said Wednesday.

As he spoke, he and common-law wife Teri Johnson needed to pack some things for moving and bag others for the garbage bin. They would need to fix some wheels on a bike cart to transport each set of stuff. They had less than two hours to leave the fenced-in area off Northeast 79th Street that had once been a parking lot, but had been their home for the last two months.

The couple would be gone before the smoke smell faded.

A 5 a.m., fire started in a third-floor apartment at 7899 NE Fourth Ct. sent frightful flames jumping into the predawn. Miami Fire Rescue Capt. Ignatius Carroll said firefighters got the blaze under control in 20 to 25 minutes and only two people were treated for smoke inhalation on the scene.

Carroll also said residents told him that Umstead ran all over the building, hollering and hitting doors to awaken residents, then helped a mother and child get out of their second-floor apartment.

Wednesday was active early for the 54-year-old Umstead. His financial support consists of a disability check and what he catches fishing. Up at 5 a.m. and casting for fish, Umstead noticed smoke coming from the top floor of the faded gray, cluttered three-floor retail-residential building across a big creek from the couple’s corner of Miami.

“It could be a grill on fire, but it’s too early in the morning,” Umstead said. “There was nobody moving. Then, the smoke got thicker. Then, I saw flames and I took off.”

Once he got to the building, he began banging on doors. In the midst of being a one-man building-wide fire alarm, he heard a crying child and a woman yelling, “I can’t make it, I need help.”

He said, “I picked that kid up and told that woman to grab me and I got down stairs.”

Umstead credited God for the breath and eyesight to get through the ordeal.

“I have COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and sleep apnea, the highest form,” he explained. “I can’t run to that pole without being out of breath in fresh air. The whole time I was in that building, I was breathing smoke that should’ve put me in an asthma attack.”

Umstead said he and Johnson came to Miami from Ashtabula, Ohio, about a year ago with an elderly woman they called “Mom.” They figured between Umstead’s disability checks and Mom’s income, they could get a small apartment. They came to Miami because, Umstead said, “I wanted to fish in the ocean once in my life.”

Mom fell ill and now lives in a nursing home. Miami’s housing market proved economically tougher than they expected. Whether what Umstead saw as the shaky mental state of some shelter residents or the desire by some shelters to split up himself and Johnson, the couple chose the streets over shelters. They occasionally take a room at a nearby motel for hygeine.

Mostly, however, they stay tucked away in a corner with their few possessions under a blue tarpaulin and a couple of chairs by the water.

Umstead said after the area police ran their names a few times — “I don’t have any priors or warrants and neither does she” — most who saw them would give a few words of caution and occasionally food. He said even the property’s owner told them they could stay as long as they needed.

But, he said, the fire brought around different officers who didn’t know them or maybe noticed them for the first time. Either way, they were told they had to be off the lot by noon.

Umstead seemed to accept the news with a Midwestern matter-of-factness that dictates dealing with a situation first, then maybe complain about it later. He hoped they’re moving up the waiting list for a housing voucher.

Then, he went back to working with Johnson. Wednesday was a busy day. It was moving day.

David J. Neal: 305-376-3559, @DavidJNeal