BROOKSVILLE – Michael Maytas had just called 911 about a large fire fire at the library when he saw a young man running down the road in a fire suit with an oxygen tank on his back.
The man approached Maytas’ car as the library was billowing smoke and fire sirens sounded in the distance.
“I asked, ‘Are you a volunteer (firefighter)?’ And he said he was going to school for it,” Maytas recalled during an interview Monday afternoon. “He came trucking down the road asking if anybody was in the building. I said, ‘I don’t know, I just called the sheriff’s office.”’
That was in the early morning hours of July 6. Two weeks later, Hernando County Sheriff’s Office officials announced the man Maytas had talked to wasn’t at the scene just trying to fight the fire – he had set it himself.
The sheriff’s office has charged Joseph Michael Brannen, 18, with second-degree arson in connection with the library fire. He is being held at the Hernando County Jail on $3,000 bond.
Fire and law officials also remember finding Brannen at the fire scene dressed in full fire gear wanting to assist.
“When questioned by deputies about (his fire gear), Brannen explained that he wanted to be a volunteer firefighter, so he purchased the bunker gear from eBay,” according to the sheriff’s office. “He stated that he heard the call go out over his scanner, so he responded.”
Brannen’s Facebook page included photos of him in full bunker gear and written statements that he was employed by Hillsborough County Fire Rescue, which he is not.
Brannen was never allowed to assist in battling the fire, which fire officials quickly determined was suspicious, in part because wicker furniture had been piled up against a back porch door.
Investigators with the Hernando sheriff’s office and State Fire Marshal’s Office later questioned Brannen. On Friday, Brannen admitted he had set the blaze, according to the sheriff’s office.
“He is very stupid,” said Melissa Mazelin, a resident in the neighborhood where Brannen lived, across from the library where she used to check books out for her 2-year-old. “I’m going to go set something on fire, and go help you put out what I started. He’s stupid.”
The smoke and water caused an estimated $250,000 damage to the library building and another $250,000 to books, according to Andy Froelich, owner of the Hernando restoration and remediation company, Servepro.
For the last two weeks, Froelich and a crew of several dozen employees have been working to restore 18,000 books that suffered smoke or water damage, he said.
“The biggest part of this job is content cleaning more than structural cleaning,” Froelich said.