Damage extensive at storage facility

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posted 10/18/02

SARASOTA COUNTY -- Joe Kent kept $40,000 worth of Volkswagen memorabilia in a unit at the Public Storage on Tamiami Trail near Stickney Point Road. Lisa Smith stored her wedding dress and the angel her parents put on the family Christmas tree when she was a child.

And Susan Dunbar packed in $25,000 worth of furniture she planned to move into her new home Thursday.

More than 50 units at Public Storage, 6133 S. Tamiami Trail, were damaged or destroyed Wednesday night by a fire that ran through much of the second floor. Dozens of people who rented space at the facility gathered outside Thursday wondering about their belongings.

"I lost everything I own," Dunbar said. She paid $170 a month for six months for a unit at Public Storage, which has renters agree in a contract that the company isn't liable for damage.

Piles of brick sat in the Public Storage parking lot Thursday morning. Water streamed out of holes in the second-floor wall and rained over open units filled with soggy boxes.

Renters who didn't know one another, but had lost something in the fire, hugged, cried and exchanged phone numbers in a Burger King parking lot next door. Many hoped their homeowners' insurance would cover their losses.

The fire started about 8 p.m. More than 50 firefighters worked through the night, reducing the fire to thin smoke by Thursday afternoon.

The Sarasota County Fire Department and the state fire marshal's office are investigating. So is Public Storage, which has 140 locations in Florida and 1,600 across the country.

The investigation could take awhile. The building is unsafe to enter because the fire twisted the metal beams that support it, fire investigators said. They will try to talk with anyone who may have been in the building shortly before the fire, but that may prove difficult because renters don't have to sign in to visit their units.

The building, which was at least 10 years old, had no sprinklers, said Rick McKeever, project service director for Public Storage. Most of the other facilities are newer and required to have sprinklers.

No flammable materials were allowed at the climate-controlled storage facility, McKeever said.

The fire started on the north side of the second floor and burned east, said fire department Assistant Chief Terrence Kehoe. A firewall prevented the flames from reaching the west side of the building.

Because the second floor had no windows, the department had to use a tractor to knock holes in the wall. Firefighters shot water through the large holes and into the rental spaces.

"It was a tough one to fight," Kehoe said. Three firefighters were treated at Sarasota Memorial Hospital for heat exhaustion, he said.