Fire guts Lions office

Service organization needs help

By PAM WITMER
PJWITMER@NEWS-PRESS.COM
Published by news-press.com on May 3, 2005


It raises money through its thrift store, which operates all year-round, and through its winter season pancake breakfasts and farmers' market and flea market operations.
The club property is also home to the Bonita Springs Assistance Office.

Because of the fire, the club offices are closed. Temporarily, club business will be conducted on the thrift store phone at 992-6665.
The club is in need of a large truck to move furniture. At the end of season, as it is now, is the prime time for furniture donations from people leaving second homes in this area and returning north for the summer.

The club also needs a trailer donated, or loaned, to put on site for temporary office space.
Anyone who may be able to help the club is asked to call the thrift store at 992-6665.

A fire has gutted the offices and burned up the truck the Bonita Springs Lions Club relies on to serve the community.

The club's unofficial estimate is a $200,000 loss for the building, computers, club records and the much-needed furniture truck.

Club president Gordon Hare is in the unusual position of asking for help from the community that the service organization has been serving for the past 45 years.

"It's the end of season, when we get a lot of furniture donations and we can't pick them up without our truck," Hare said.

"And we have no place for our offices," he said.

Hare said Monday he had already been checking around for another truck, but didn't find one readily available.

The one lost in the fire, which started early Sunday morning, cost about $40,000, Hare said.

"We're desperate for another truck if anyone has one," Hare said.

The little house on the Lions Club grounds on Pennsylvania Avenue just west of the railroad tracks was a complete loss, said Debbi Redfield, spokeswoman for Bonita Springs Fire and Rescue.

"The front part of the building was severely damaged," Redfield said. "The whole building had significant smoke and heat damage. One of their big trucks was parked close to the building and it was also a total loss in the fire."

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, Redfield said. Staff from the state fire marshal's office and the Lee County sheriff's office were on the scene Monday investigating.

Another large fire in Lehigh Acres is also under investigation by state officials, which may slow down announcements of results of the Lions Club fire investigation, Redfield said.

Hare said he received a phone call at 1:55 a.m. Sunday from a neighbor who lives near the club property.

"The neighbor heard an explosion across the street and looked out a window to see three or four men running away," Hare said.

Club members are convinced the fire was caused by men who had been sleeping in the carport of the house used for office space.

Club secretary Ann Zinser said men had been using the property for weeks.

"We kept moving them out every day," she said. "It went on for a month or more."

Randy Howell is manager of the club's thrift store across the parking area from the burned-out house. He said the men were hauling old couches, cushions or whatever they could find from the trash bin where cast-off items from the thrift store were discarded.

"We dismantled it all a couple of times," Howell said.

Howell believes the men started sleeping in the club's carport after the city cleaned out a forested area along the railroad tracks.

"The assumption is that someone fell asleep with a cigarette on a mattress against the front door and it ignited," Howell said.

He said he had made calls to the sheriff's office asking for extra runs through the area to monitor the situation.

Sheriff's office records show Howell called for an area check on April 25.

"We asked the police to make runs, but they could come at midnight and not find anyone, but they could be there at 2 a.m.," Hare said.

"We don't hold the police responsible for this in any way, shape or form," he said. "This is what happens since they cleared the brush to realign Ragsdale (Street). There must have been people living in there and they just decided to move over to our property."