SOUTH VENICE — Two men remain hospitalized after a Thursday blaze and explosion in a garage while they worked with black powder and bullet casings.
Officials said the investigation into what caused the inferno that led to the shutting down of U.S. 41 and evacuation of nearby homes is far from complete.
But family members and friends of the men believe it was accidental.
Paul Horvat, 68, and Neil Cameron, 71, were both flown by air to Blake Medical Center in Bradenton for burns.
“We don’t know what happened. I haven’t talked to my husband,” Cameron’s wife, Pam, said on her way home from the hospital Tuesday. “He’s on a ventilator and has been sedated since he was put on the helicopter.”
She said he suffered third-degree burns over 60% of his body and is expected to be hospitalized for at least five to six months.
Horvat’s family said in a statement that he remains in critical condition.
"He has not been able to say what went wrong," the statement from his daughters, Stephanie Williams and Jessica Argotsinger, and wife, Ventrina, wrote in a text late Tuesday.
His neighbor said the longtime gunsmith was always safe with his tools and potentially hazardous items.
“He knew what he was doing,” neighbor Michael Gutzler said Tuesday. “Just some kind of freak accident is what I’m guessing.”
The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office report said the fire took place about 2:10 p.m. Thursday at 120 Sunset Beach Drive. Emergency responders were told the structure had up to 100 pounds of black powder and 10,000 rounds of ammunition along with oxygen and acetylene tanks, according to its report.
“The sounds of ammunition popping/exploding were heard at an increasing frequency,” the report stated. “Several larger explosions were also heard … the detached garage structure was eventually completely involved by fire.”
Gutzler said he knew Horvat had an air conditioner that was running 24/7 in the garage and took great care of the gunpowder and other items.
“He was very responsible,” he said.
Along with being a gunsmith for decades, Horvat also spent years in the Navy and got out as a chief. Cameron spent his career as a marine engineer.
While they enjoyed target shooting as a hobby, the men were both very serious, Pam Cameron said.
Neil Cameron and Paul Horvat reportedly attempted to put out the blaze with the fire extinguishers — at least four — that Horvat had in the garage as a safety precaution.
Neil Cameron was the one who called 911, according to Gutzler. Gutzler said he had been mowing his lawn when he saw the situation unfolding, but noted there was no apparent fire nor explosions at first.
“His clothes were torn up and a mess,” Gutzler said.
But he was able to talk to authorities as they arrived.
Pam Cameron said despite the emergency, he was able to stay calm and in control, based on his decades of training. He had once been a chief engineer at sea and dealing with emergencies was a part of the job.
“He’s trained for crisis like this … I’m not surprised he was calm, cool and collected,” she said.
But when she arrived, he had only a few words before he was rushed to the burn unit.
“He mouthed ‘I’m OK,’ before they put him on the helicopter,” she said.
She said both men are well known in the community and had heard of one-another before becoming friends about five years ago. They bonded over target shooting — and target shooting is better when you do reloads, putting together your own bullets — she said.
“This is what they do, what they enjoy. You can ask anyone at the who knows them. They are precise at what they do,” Pam Cameron said. “My husband is a marine engineer so he’s very precise. And Paul is ex-military and ex-police, so he’s very serious … they’re not like cowboys, and anybody who knows them, knows that.”
Horvat's shop "was a gathering spot for many," his family said.
"There were regulars and some who just dropped by from time to time to see what projects were in the works," the family said. "Our Dad is very careful and professional, he has always been willing to teach anyone who would listen about gun safety."
Gutzler has heard speculation and conjecture but doesn’t know what led to the fire.
“You have a lot of different stories,” he said. “It’s just crazy.”
Officially, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office and Sarasota County Fire Department have turned their investigation over to the Florida Bureau of Fire, Arson and Explosives Investigations.
That agency is under the Department of Financial Services.
“This fire investigation is open and ongoing and no further details are available at this time,” DFS Press Secretary John O’Brien said in an email Tuesday. “The DFS investigation focuses on the origin and cause of the fire incident.”
For now, the friends and family are looking toward a long recovery for both men. What caused it might not be ever really known, Pam Cameron said.
“Until Neil comes through, and if he has any memory of anything, we really don’t know.”
It has been a tough time for those involved.
“Last night was the first night I was able to think clearly,” she said. “Up until then I’d been in a fog.”
She said all the support has been appreciated.
“I just know we are going to need help. But the community is wonderful. Our friends are great, and our family.”
Horvat's daughters agreed.
"My Dad loves the city of Venice; how people take care of each other in this no-so-small small town. We have seen firsthand as we have received countless calls, texts and streams of people stopping by the house to check on him and see if we need any help at all."