Thursday, December 12, 2002

Morning blaze ruled arson

Hydrant failure briefly hampers firefighters' efforts

By Veronica Chapin
Times-Union staff writer

NEPTUNE BEACH -- A fire intentionally set at a Neptune Beach business coupled with an inoperable fire hydrant at the front of the building had Jacksonville firefighters seeing red yesterday morning.

Jacksonville fire department spokesman Tom Francis said the blaze started about 4:30 a.m. at the Coral Point Professional Park and caused nearly $1 million in damage to the First National Bank of Nassau County on Third Street.

No injuries were reported.

"You would hope that fighting a fire at the Beaches isn't the same as fighting a woods fire where you have to bring your own water," Francis said regarding the hydrant. "The only one we were able to use was about 1 1/2 blocks away."

Francis said firefighters were briefly hampered but it did not have a serious impact on the fire suppression because a fire wall helped keep it from spreading. Firefighters got control of the blaze in less than 30 minutes, he said.

"We don't really know what happened [to the hydrant]," said Neptune Beach Fire Marshal John Webber. "They are mechanical, they can fail."

Webber said the hydrant was working a few hours later when Neptune Beach officials tested it. The city has replaced numerous hydrants, with plans to replace several more, he said.

Neptune Beach City Manager Dick Linn said a company is contracted to check the hydrants each year and the city is currently talking with Jacksonville fire officials for additional assistance.

"We are not pointing fingers at anybody, but mechanically, they can fail," he said. "They [Jacksonville fire department] render us a tremendous service and response times are great."

Linn said there are areas in Neptune Beach that do not have adequate water flow and they are working to increase the size of the lines.

During the last nine months, 26 of the hydrants have been replaced and another 37 are expected to be replaced throughout the city by mid-January, Linn said.

"At the time of the fire the water tank was full and the city was under full water pressure," he said.

The hydrant across the street from the building does not work and is scheduled to be replaced. However, the one in front of the office was thought to be working.

It was last flow tested in October 2001 and it was working fine, Webber said.

The news of the arson was unexpected.

"Oh my God, I'm shocked, amazed," said Bill Kelley, head manager of the bank building, which houses a wholesale mortgage division. "The first thing that surfaces in my mind is: who? Why?"

Kelley said the company is looking for lease space in the area and will reopen in about two days because all its computer files are duplicated at the Fernandina Beach main office. He stressed that none of his employees will be without a job over the holidays.

Jacksonville firefighters fought the blaze because the city took over fire service for Neptune Beach in 1999, replacing a volunteer fire department, Webber said.

Staff writer Veronica Chapin can be reached at (904) 359-4161 or vchapinjacksonville.com.