‘We were all in shock.’ Why a raging fire at a duplex put Key West on edge

·3 min read

A fire in Key West can be a frightful sight. With older wooden homes packed together and thick vegetation along streets, there’s always the fear of a quick spread.

And when a plume of thick black smoke rose high in the sky Wednesday night, visible across the Southernmost City, it certainly put the island on edge.

The raging fire destroyed a duplex. Luckily, it didn’t spread very far, no one was hurt, and two dogs and several turtles were rescued.

The cause is under investigation, said Alyson Crean, the city’s spokeswoman.

Key West fire crews rushed to the home and quickly took command, laying out hoses across surrounding streets, and attacking the flames in the 1200 block of Laird Street, just a couple of blocks from the Atlantic shore and near the White Street pier.

Smoke fills the sky from a house fire in Key West on June 29, 2022.
Smoke fills the sky from a house fire in Key West on June 29, 2022.

The fire made people nervous. They checked in with family and friends and shared updates through the night.

They quickly learned the fire was at the home of Carrie Helliesen, the former director of the American Cancer Society of the Florida Keys, and her husband Doug Helliesen, a Coast Guard veteran who began renovating old Conch houses in the 1970s, according to a 2018 profile in the Keys Weekly.

The couple, who have called Key West home for decades, were at the nearby fishing pier off White Street with their dogs, Karma and P-Nut, when the fire broke out at their duplex property around 7:30 p.m., said their daughter Carly Helliesen, 37, of the Tampa Bay area.

“They came back from the pier to find it already engulfed,” she said.

Her parents live on one side of the house, a two-bedroom, one-bath home, and a few months ago rented the other side to a young couple, whose two large dogs were safely rescued, she said.

“My understanding is they need help,” Carly Helliesen said of the couple.

Bailey Thomasson and Justin Benson were at dinner Wednesday night when they got a call that their home was burning. They raced to Laird Street, where Benson crawled inside to rescue their dogs, Jib and Sadie, Thomasson said in a Facebook post Thursday.

“We think everything is gone,” Thomasson posted. “We are heartbroken, but us and the pups are safe and that’s all that matters. Thank you to everyone who has reached out with support and supplies.”

Smoke from a Key West house fire on June 29, 2022, was visible across the island.
Smoke from a Key West house fire on June 29, 2022, was visible across the island.

Carly Helliesen watched the blaze in real time on a FLKeysNews.com/Miami Herald reporter’s Facebook Live video. At times, she had to turn away.

“That’s the house I grew up in and spent most of my life,” she said. “We all were in shock. We still don’t know what caused it.”

Her parents are staying with friends for now. Thursday is also Carrie Helliesen’s birthday, her daughter noted.

All the couple’s pets are safe, Carly said, including several turtles that include a tortoise named Mr. T.

While devastated by the loss, the family remains grateful.

“Everybody is OK, everybody is alive and well,” she said. “The community is amazing. I’m relieved to know my parents will be well taken care of.”