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Date of Issue: April 24, 2008

Davis' thankful, hopeful after fire destroys home

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Pa Davis stands outside her home on April 17. An accidental fire destroyed the $1.15 million residence, according to West Manatee Fire Rescue District officials. Islander Photo: Lisa Neff

Kent and Sophaphan “Pa” Davis of Holmes Beach quickly admit they are lucky to be alive.

Had their smoke detectors not worked, Kent Davis believes the fire that started shortly after 2 a.m. April 17 in the garage of their bayfront home on 58th Street would not have awakened them in time.

“The smoke detectors saved our lives. We only had about 30 seconds after the alarm woke us up to get out. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be standing here today talking to you,” said Davis, a well-known Island businessman and the former owner of the Siam Garden Resort in Anna Maria.

Davis spoke as he examined the rubble of one of his greatest passions: a collection of more than 2,000 books on the history of Southeast Asia.

The fire consumed the his rarest books. The remainder are “drying out” and Davis has already contacted a company that specializes in book and manuscript restoration about their fate.

“After saving our lives, that’s the real story,” Davis said, pointing to the remains of his collection, most of them signed first editions, extremely rare and no longer available anywhere. Some were printed in the 1800s or early 1900s.

“The collection was priceless. It’s not something I can place a value on,” Davis observed. “I can tell you my house contents are insured for $150,000 and I wouldn’t have taken that for the collection. They are irreplaceable.”

And his collection was to have increased by one on April 18 and yet another in the not-too-distant future.

He had planned on republishing “Angkor the Magnificent,” originally written in 1924 by American socialite and Titanic survivor Helen Churchill Candee on the history of Angkor Wat. The revised version was scheduled to go to the publisher on April 18.

Candee’s 1924 book is credited with introducing tourism to Cambodia. Americans living in the western Pacific at that time became entranced by her descriptions of the splendor and architecture of the temples and statues and began to visit the remote site on a regular basis. Those visits prompted the pre-World War II Cambodian government to build roads to the site, where accommodations and dining establishments began to flourish as a result of the growth of tourism.

If there’s anything left of Davis’ work, which also includes a biography of Candee, it’s on a hard-drive somewhere in the rubble, he said.

“I think I can save it,” said an optimistic Davis. He’s having the hard drive sent to a computer company that specializes in recovering memory from damaged hard drives.

Luckily, Davis had sent a digital copy to a graphic arts company a few days earlier. The text most certainly can be retrieved from that, he believes.

What might not be salvaged, however, is something different, rare and priceless - Davis’ original notes, photographs and manuscript on the more than 1,800 female statues at Angkor Wat.

Davis has spent the past six years researching the significance of these statutes, each of which is distinctly different from another. He planned on publishing his works through his publishing company, DatAsia.

The data on his hard-drive includes his 25,000 photographs of the statues. Although some of his original notes were saved, the photographs are the “key” to the entire work, he said.

“This was to be my legacy to the Cambodian people, a story of their history, which the Khmer Rouge stole when they came to power.”

Davis said he would continue his literary effort on Angkor Wat, even if he has to start again with just his few remaining notes and drawings.

“The house fire and the possessions lost don’t define me. That’s not what I am. These are all transient things. My wife’s from Thailand and the Buddhist mentality there is that these things are worth nothing. What you do with your life is worth something.”

Davis said the proceeds of all the books he is publishing will be donated to a humanitarian cause for the people of Cambodia. Information about Davis’ cause can be found at www.earthinflower.com.

That Web site details a book documenting the women who formed the national dance company of Cambodia, until they were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Davis was involved in republishing that material and it helped him form a vision and mission for his life.

He and Pa have already begun their humanitarian efforts in Cambodia, having funded a middle school several years ago during a visit to Angkor Wat for his research.

They have no plans to stop, or let a fire slow them down. They have moved on quickly to continue their mission in life.

Kent Davis was on a borrowed computer the night of the fire to let friends and family afar know that they survived a nightmare.