Big Fire Destroys Tampa Buildings

Friday, May 19th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — A huge fire today destroyed a luxury apartment complex under construction and a post office in the historic Ybor City section of Tampa, closing part of a highway and sending up a column of smoke visible from at least 15 miles away.

The six-alarm fire was in an arson-plagued area, but it appeared to be accidental. Two firefighters were hospitalized, one with chest pains, the other suffering from smoke inhalation, officials said.

The fire started at about 9 a.m., said Fire Department Capt. Bill Wade. The heat from the blaze ignited the post office, which in turn caused wooden guard rails along Interstate 4 to smolder.

``There is going to be a lot of mail lost,'' Wade said. ``We have lost two city blocks.''

About 80 postal employees escaped the burning building by going out a back way, said Gary Sawtelle of the U.S. Postal Service.

Firefighters saved what mail they could, carrying bundles out of the building in their arms. The branch serves about 20,000 customers in eastern Tampa.

A portion of the interstate was shut down in both directions and nearby businesses were evacuated, including the Hilton Hotel and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

Damage was spread over a two-block area. A steel structure that was also under construction about 60 feet from the burning building was warped from the fire, and the Ybor City Brewing Company's roof was briefly on fire.

``We could have easily lost more than the two blocks today, we could've lost lives,'' Wade said.

A forklift hit a power line and knocked down a transformer, which fell onto construction debris. The resulting fire moved from the debris to a palm tree next to the building. Fire wall protection had not yet been installed, and the flames quickly spread, Wade said.

``The structure was fully enflamed by the time crews arrived,'' he said. Construction workers were on the job when the fire broke out, but none were injured.

Subcontractor Rolando Contreras was working on a parking garage just a few feet from where the fire started. He said the power line was shooting out fireballs the size of basketballs.

``We tried to put the fire out with sand and dirt, but that power line was too dangerous,'' he said.

The fire is in a section of town where authorities have found arson as the cause of 36 fires in the past year.

Only one person has been arrested — for the most recent fire before today's — allegedly set in a vacant home Tuesday.

But investigators do not believe the man, Carl Lester Simms, is responsible for the other fires.

Most of those fires have been set in the Tampa Heights neighborhood, but some have been in historic Ybor City, located just north of downtown. The arson targets have been abandoned and occupied homes, a church and at least one apartment complex under construction.

No one has been injured, but some of the fires have been set at night in homes where people were sleeping.

``I've been sleeping two or three hours a night,'' said Dave Davis, who has spent the last five years renovating a 1912 home. ``Every time the dog barks I'm looking out the window.''

The city has formed a task force with state and federal arson investigators. Without even a description of a suspect they have little to go on.

Fernando Noriega, the mayor's top aide on redevelopment issues, said the fires aren't scaring away those willing to invest in redevelopment — yet.

``It's been an uphill battle,'' he said. ``There are a lot of urban pioneers who have made a lifetime investment there. There are appraisers going out there, lenders taking a look. Although they say they don't worry, I'm sure they do.''

Noriega dismisses street speculation that the fires are being set by grudge-bearing long-term residents upset at the recent gentrification of the area.

``This is a person who is really sick,'' Noriega said of the arsonist. ``I hope the neighborhood doesn't get him before the authorities do. There isn't going to be much left of him.''