Tampa Tribune

Ybor Fire Burned Into Memories In 2000
BY SEAN LENGELL slengell@tampatrib.com
Published: May 19, 2005

TAMPA - Peering out the window of Tampa Fire Rescue's downtown headquarters on the morning of May 19, 2000, Fire Chief Dennis Jones knew the column of black smoke rising from Ybor City signaled no typical blaze.
It wasn't until arriving on the scene minutes later that Jones realized nothing in his 22-year career would compare with this conflagration that tore through Ybor City's north side five years ago today.

Not only was the blaze consuming a partially constructed apartment complex at a terrifying pace, it threatened several nearby landmarks.

``There were absolutely no firebreaks - there were basically these four blocks of nothing but plywood and 2-by-4s,'' Jones said. ``There was no stopping it once it got going.''

The day showcased one of Tampa's largest mobilizations of firefighters. About 150 fire personnel battled the blaze at its peak. On any given day, Tampa has about 120 firefighters and paramedics on duty.

At least 30 off-duty firefighters responded. Units from the Hillsborough County fire department and agencies in Pinellas County, Temple Terrace and MacDill Air Force Base assisted.

By the time the flames were extinguished hours later, the partially completed, 450-unit apartment complex called the Park at Ybor City and the Ybor City Post Office were destroyed. Property damage was estimated at $40 million - $30 million for the apartments.

``I've never seen a fire move that fast through a structure,'' said fire Capt. Nick LoCicero. ``It was probably one of the toughest fires any of us can remember. It taxed us mentally and physically and every other way.''

The fire began about 9 a.m. when a forklift operator knocked down a power line at 20th Street and 11th Avenue, where the apartments were under construction. The downed line sparked, and within minutes flames carried through a labyrinth of exposed wood frames.

Conditions were ripe for disaster, Fire Rescue spokesman Bill Wade said.

Drywall and sprinklers had yet to be installed, exposing hundreds of bare wood support beams. The fallen power line landed on a wood pile, serving as an accelerant. A brisk wind quickly carried the flames.

``There were a lot of things aligned against the fire crews,'' Wade said.

The fire's intense heat caused the nearby post office to combust. The building's metal roof is believed to have directed heat to its interior, igniting wood support beams.

When the flames came dangerously close to the Ybor City State Museum, Vince Pardo, manager of the Ybor City Development Corp., rushed in and began carrying out displays and artifacts, taking them to Centennial Park across the street.

``When we saw the top of the Oliva [Tobacco] building melt, we knew it was serious,'' Pardo said.

Remarkably, fire experts say, the blaze didn't spread farther. LoCicero's Fire Station No. 1 crew spent part of the day dousing one potential target, the rectory of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, across from the apartments.

Although a few embers singed a small portion of the rectory's roof, the building and adjacent church were spared.

``We kind of made that our last stand,'' LoCicero said.

The Oliva building, on Palm Avenue across from the apartments, suffered roof damage, but asbestos shingles helped protect it from more serious damage.

Despite the devastation, few scars remain. The apartments soon were rebuilt, and a new post office opened this year.

Pardo said rebuilding the apartment complex, renamed Camden Ybor City, helped inspire developers and potential residents.

``People got enthused about that, and that enthusiasm continues,'' Pardo said. ``That definitely was an eye-opener for a lot of people.''

Reporter Sean Lengell can be reached at (813) 259-7145.