On The Job - Tampa: Ybor City Inferno

Bill Wade reports on a massive fire that destroyed apartments and a post office, but has not diminished on-going revitalization efforts in a historic section of the city.


TAMPA FIRE RESCUE Chief Pete Botto Personnel: 526 career firefighters Apparatus: 19 engines, four aerial trucks, 12 rescue (ALS transport) units, four ARFF trucks, one ventilation truck Population: 290,000 Area: 120 square miles On the morning of May 19, 2000, members of Tampa Fire...


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TAMPA FIRE RESCUE
Chief Pete Botto
Personnel: 526 career firefighters
Apparatus: 19 engines, four aerial trucks, 12 rescue (ALS transport) units, four ARFF trucks, one ventilation truck
Population: 290,000
Area: 120 square miles

On the morning of May 19, 2000, members of Tampa Fire Rescue Engine 4 discovered that their two-way truck-mounted radio was inoperative. At about 7:50 A.M., they left their station and were enroute to the radio repair shop two miles away. This day, the weather was clear and hot with a steady breeze blowing from the southeast.

As Engine 4 pulled out from the fire station, the firefighters could see the wood-frame shells of the more than 450 apartments that were under construction just a block away. The apartments, filling two full city blocks, were part of a 30-year revitalization project for a historic area of Tampa called Ybor City. The fire crew had no way of knowing that in about an hour the wood-frame shells would be a raging inferno.

Power Line Sparks Fire

Tampa Fire Rescue provides fire suppression, building inspection and code enforcement, EMS, hazardous materials response, aircraft rescue and firefighting at Tampa International Airport, marine firefighting at the Port of Tampa and many other emergency services. The department operates 19 structural firefighting stations and two aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) stations.

Shortly before 9 A.M. on May 19, a construction crew was using a forklift to place wooden trusses on the roof of three-story wooden apartments that were under construction. The forklift boom came into contact with a power line, causing the line to fall. The downed power line arced and sparked, and set fire to a palm tree, grass and a pile of wood. The construction crew moved quickly away from the dangerous situation.

The first 911 call was received at Tampa Fire Rescue dispatch at 8:54, reporting a problem at the construction site. The call was from a woman working in the Ybor Brewery, a restored three-story brick building directly across the street from Fire Station 4. The caller reported that a power line was down and some wood was on fire. The fire dispatcher asked whether the buildings were on fire. That person and subsequent callers to 911 indicated that the fire was near the building under construction.

Because Engine 4 was at radio repair, the next closest engine was sent from Station 6, just over a mile away. On scene at 9 A.M., Captain Steve Toenes reported that he had power lines down and that the fire was spreading into the shell of the three-story apartments that were under construction. A full alarm was sounded at 9:01, sending two additional engines (one of which was Engine 4), an aerial truck, a rescue car and a chief officer to the rapidly growing fire.

Toenes had the engine position itself so that the crew and the truck would not come in contact with the charged downed power lines. The fallen power line had 7,620 volts coursing through it. As the fire progressed, it would take the local power company until 10 A.M. to confirm that the electricity was shut off in the entire area.

Toenes established command at the corner of 12th Avenue and 20th Street first, then passed command to first-arriving District Chief Joe Wooles. The crew from Engine 6 then directed a water stream at the growing fire in an attempt to knock it down. The firefighters attempted to attack the fire from the unburned side, but the heat was so intense that unfinished apartments were bursting into flames from the first floor through the third floor attic seemingly at once. A steady wind blowing toward the northwest was fanning the blaze right into the rest of the unprotected wood shells.

At 9:04, even before the first-alarm units arrived on scene, Toenes could see trouble coming and called for a second alarm. Before an hour had passed, a total of six alarms would be requested. This would summon fire crews from neighboring communities as far as 25 miles away bringing in over 60 pieces of equipment and 150 firefighters. (See box on page 90 for mutual aid companies and other agencies.)

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