ST.Petersburg Times

Bolts start fire, scare workers at other sites
Lightning is blamed for scorching an apartment wall, darkening a church and frightening some plumbers.

By ANGIE GREEN and MEGAN SCOTT
St. Petersburg Times
published July 23, 2003

TARPON SPRINGS - In three separate incidents Tuesday morning, lightning started one fire, was suspected in another and left workers feeling tingly after a bolt apparently struck nearby, fire officials said.

Each event occurred as a line of storms moved through North Pinellas and lightning zapped from one end of town to the other.

"We had some rough weather come through here, but nobody was seriously injured," said Tarpon Springs Fire Rescue Chief Kevin Bowman.

The first call came in at 9:01 a.m. regarding a strike at 1466 Starlight Cove in the Riverside Apartment Homes off U.S. 19 N.

Firefighters arriving a few minutes later saw nothing at first. Then they saw the haze. They peeled back the drywall on the ceiling and a side wall on a ground-floor apartment. That's when they saw what the lightning had scorched.

"We saw no flames, but a bunch of charred wood," said Tarpon Springs Fire Rescue Capt. Scott Young. "It could have been worse." Young said two gas lines were next to the zapped wood.

Firefighters used a thermal imaging camera, which can see areas of heat not visible to the human eye, to find one area that remained hot, Bowman said. They then went into the wall to put out the rest of the fire.

"We were not going to walk away without making sure they were all completely cold," he said.

No one was hurt, but residents in at least one of the two apartments affected on the first and second floors of Building 7 might have had to find another place to stay Tuesday night because of repairs.

The ceiling, walls and natural gas lines need to be replaced. The heat melted insulation off gas lines, Young said.

Riverside Apartment Homes manager Sofia Hale would not release the residents' names, but said the family that lives in the first-floor home may stay with friends during repairs. The second floor, which is occupied by a female tenant, is "livable," she said.

The second incident occurred more than a mile to the south at the First Assembly of God, 550 E Tarpon Ave., near downtown Tarpon Springs.

About 10:40 a.m., a church volunteer heard a "boom." Seconds later, flames erupted from an electrical box on the church's fellowship hall.

"I jumped," said Joe Clark, a longtime church member who was painting in the building next to the box. "I knew it was a hit. . . . It sounded like a great big "boom.' "

Business owners at a neighboring plaza heard it, too. Vac Cubes owner Larry Kroupa opened his door and saw the flames. He sprinted across the church yard with a fire extinguisher while his daughter called 911.

"I put it out and came back to work," Kroupa said. "It was raining like crazy. I didn't want to stand around. You could hear the sirens coming, so they didn't need me anymore."

Fire officials were unsure how the fire at the church started. Young, the captain, said it was more likely it was an electrical short, but he does not rule out the possibility of a lightning strike.

The fire left the electrical box a mass of burned black wires, the inside of the sanctuary pitch black and the church halls smelling like burnt wire. "The meter literally looked like it had exploded," Chief Bowman said.

Clark said power is gone from the church's sanctuary, educational building and fellowship hall. Fire officials estimated the damage at $5,000.

The third incident was a couple of miles to the southwest. Authorities received a call at 10:51 a.m. about what may have been a lightning strike at the Grassy Pointe subdivision, Bowman said. Accounts vary, but two or three plumbers working on a vacant lot at 471 Denise Street were later checked out by paramedics.

"There was a close lightning strike, and they felt that they may have been affected," Bowman said.

The men, who worked for Bayonet Plumbing in Hudson, complained of a "tingly feeling," said Tarpon Springs Fire Rescue Capt. Don Sayre.

Fire officials heard there were three men involved.

Bayonet Plumbing would not release the names of the men, but a woman who answered the phone at the company said there were two of them and they were not seriously injured.

Ernie Jillson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin, said the lightning in North Pinellas stemmed from a line of thunderstorms moving over the Gulf of Mexico. He said North Pinellas had quite a bit of lightning Tuesday compared with other parts of the county.

"It's not unusual," he said of the storms.

"It's a little more active than normal. It's still a summertime situation."