On The Job - Tampa: Ybor City Inferno

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.)

Fire Station 1 is a three-story building that also serves as the headquarters for fire department administration. When the Ybor fire began, all on-duty chief officers were attending a meeting. The smoke cloud rising up from Ybor City could easily be seen from headquarters. Within minutes of Engine 6's arrival on scene, the meeting room had emptied. Having all the chief officers arrive at nearly the same time and location proved to be advantageous. Division Chief James Taylor later noted that he was able to quickly break the fire into sectors, assigning a district chief to each strategic location. Taylor noted that using the terms north, south, east or west sector for such a large scene let everyone on scene understand their areas of responsibility and where they were being assigned.

District Chief Tom Bayne was on scene at 9:12, followed closely by Taylor. Incident command, initially established by Toenes and Engine 6, was now passed for the final time to Taylor at Palm Avenue and 19th Street.

It only took a few minutes for the entire northeast corner of the construction site to be completely involved in flames. As Engine 5 arrived on scene, its crew reported to the Ybor Brewing Co. and laid a supply line to Engine 6. Captain Jim Gary of Engine 5, noticing smoke coming from the attic of the brewery, transmitted a request for assistance. It took personnel from several fire crews about 20 minutes to bring this blaze under control. Eventually, a ladder truck from a neighboring community, Temple Terrace, was assigned to spray water on the building and protect it from the radiant heat.

Fire Jumps Street

The fire was raging westward and consuming at least two buildings under construction. An attempt was made to stop the fire's westward progression by placing fire crews from Aerial 1 and other companies along 19th Street. Before the aerial and other firefighting forces could be put in place, however, the fire had jumped 19th Street and was beginning to consume the second full block of wooden apartments under construction. Fire crews had to abandon their positions, leaving hoses behind, to escape the growing inferno. Fire crews were repositioned the next block west to take a stand and protect a historic Catholic Church and a new, four-story Hilton hotel.

It was now just before 9:30. As the fire spread throughout the construction site, new exposure hazards became obvious. A 12-year-old post office building on the north side had to be protected. Fire crews sprayed water on the postal building, giving up any hope of saving the wooden apartments in the first block.

The second block of wooden frame apartments presented a new hazard - at a U-Haul rental and storage facility a large liquid propane (LP) gas tank sat precariously close to the inferno. The crew from Engine 18, responding on the third alarm, placed protective hoselines on the propane tank. Aerial 9 assisted by placing a 1,000-gpm elevated steam on the LP tank.

By now, the radiant heat was setting fire to wooden framework in the windows of the four-story brick U-Haul storage facility. Engine 4 worked its water stream on the post office, on vehicles at the U-Haul building and on themselves. Engine 12 and other fire crews made forcible entry into the U-Haul building and extinguished several small spot fires. The intense heat from the now raging inferno melted the lights on the fire apparatus and heated firefighters' turnout gear to the point where cooling water streams had to be placed on them.

Firefighting efforts were thwarted by the extreme heat several times as fire crews had to reposition vehicles away from the unrelenting flames. A water tower standing over six stories tall was scorched.

At this time, more than a half-dozen hydrants were being tapped for water. Other hydrants were beginning to flow water to trucks that were supplying master streams. Command asked the Tampa Water Department to increase pressure in the system, and no serious water-shortage problems were encountered during the battle. Tampa Fire Rescue Assistant Chief David Keene noted that the problem wasn't a lack of water - the problem was there was just too much fire.

Church Protected

The fire, now consuming a second block of apartments, quickly marched westward. The crews of Aerial 14 and Engine 3, a pumper with a 50-foot elevated nozzle, responded on the fourth and fifth alarms. These crews set up master streams on the apartment building in an attempt to stunt the fire's growth, but there was too much fuel and too much fire. Eventually, the hoselines and elevated master streams were directed on the 100-year-old meeting hall of a Catholic Church and the fire's westward progression was stopped. A historic building was saved, a battle was won, but the war was far from over.

Mutual aid fire crews from neighboring Hillsborough County had arrived on scene. About 30 off-duty Tampa firefighters, seeing helicopter news coverage on TV, arrived at the scene and assisted in many ways. Some off-duty fire fighters reported seeing the 200-foot flames as far as six miles away.

Interstate 4, a major east-west highway, was closed at 9:15 because heat and smoke were setting fire to the wooden posts that support the guard rails. Due to the extreme drought conditions in the Tampa area, there was concern that embers would fly for miles and ignite distant fires. Area law enforcement remained vigilant for distant fires. As the smoke and heat wafted through the community, fire alarms were being set off in buildings not directly affected by the conflagration.

Fire dispatchers realized that firefighting resources needed to work at the conflagration could not be taken away to check on the alarms. Instead of sending fire crews to the automatic fire alarms, fire inspectors were dispersed throughout the community to check out the fire alarms.

Unable to progress westward from 18th Street, the fire turned south toward the remaining wooden apartment shells. As the fire approached Palm Avenue, a four-lane street on the south side, it met with a much more ready firefighting force. Fire crews had yet to muster enough hoselines to stop the fire from consuming the wooden apartments. On the south side of the fire, along Palm Avenue, fire crews were ready to protect a wooden three-story warehouse that housed a tobacco company.

Next to the tobacco warehouse was the Ybor City State Museum, a block filled with turn-of-the-century wooden buildings. The heat and flames were intense as the apartments burned. Vinyl siding on the old warehouse melted. Some water got inside and wet the stored tobacco, but as the fire died down damage to the warehouse was limited and superficial.

Had the warehouse caught fire, the museum might also have been consumed. When the fire threatened, museum workers evacuated what artifacts they could. (They were able to return the artifacts to their exhibit cases that afternoon.) More historic structures were saved, another battle won.

Rubble & Ash

Engine 9 (a fourth-alarm company) from West Tampa had positioned itself at the corner of 20th Street and Palm Avenue, trying to stop the fire in the apartments and protect some new construction to the east. Shortly after 10:30, as most of the two blocks of apartments had been reduced to ashes, Captain Kenny Shields of Engine 9 noted that his corner was still standing.

Out of two city blocks, what would have been in excess of 450 apartments was now reduced to rubble and ash. But on the corner of 20th Street and Palm Avenue the heavily charred remains of a few apartments stood as an example of what had occupied two full blocks only 90 minutes earlier.

Many battles were being won, but the fire had some fight remaining. Fire crews continued to play water on the heavily damaged post office. During the firefight at the apartments, postal workers had been moving mail to safer locations outside the threatened building. Firefighters whose attention had been on the U-Haul warehouse and the raging apartment inferno now made their way inside the post office, but security equipment built into the structure slowed the search for hidden fire.

Outside fire crews knew something was wrong as the color of the post office's metal roof changed and water being played on the metal quickly turned to steam. Inside crews could hear the fire crackling up in the ceiling. By the time hoselines could be stretched inside and the two-layer ceiling pulled down, the attic was full of fire. Outside firefighters placed a ground ladder against the building and climbed on the roof with a hoseline in an attempt to investigate and extinguish any fire.

Within minutes, dark, black smoke was pouring from the roof. Inside the building fire crews noted that visibility was quickly diminishing as light smoke turned brown, then black. Command officers scrambled to reassign crews from rehab, staging and other locations to the post office. Police officers helped fire crews advance hoselines, moved post office vehicles away from the building and assisted postal managers in removing mail carts from the building.

By 11:07, the post office roof had flames showing and three full alarms were on scene. The building was a total loss. It was determined that radiant heat was transmitted through the metal roof into wood supports underneath. A smoldering fire in the roof of the unsprinklered building eventually erupted and burned out of control for nearly two hours. As the post office became the focus of the firefight, Captain Joe Wooles assumed a separate "post office command."

The final "under control" was given by Taylor at 4:07 P.M., more than seven hours after the first call.

Assessing The Damage

The temperature in Tampa on this date reached 90 degrees. Two rehabilitation areas had been established, one near Palm Avenue and 19th Street, the other near the Post Office at 12th Avenue and 19th Street. Medics from many agencies staffed these rehab areas. The American Red Cross and the Salvation Army took the lead in providing food and fluids to the exhausted fire crews. Dozens of heat exhaustion cases were treated on scene. Lieutenant Troy Basham of Rescue 14 was hospitalized for evaluation after he experienced chest pain. Acting Engine 10 Captain Larry Gray was hospitalized overnight, suffering from severe heat exhaustion. Basham and Gray have both returned to full duty. Firefighter George Truitt of Engine 3 suffered a leg injury; he was treated and released from a medical clinic. Tampa Fire Rescue Videographer Charles Sutnick fell and broke his right arm and wrist. He required surgery and rehabilitation, and was expected to be incapacitated for six months.

The Tampa Fire Rescue fleet of vehicles held up well under the extreme conditions, though some apparatus sustained significant damage from the intense heat. Many windshields were cracked and plastic lenses on dozens of trucks melted. Paint was blistered. Hoselines valued at more than $10,000 melted.

Some truck engines had to be evaluated for effects of overheating - the big diesel engines had only hot air to flow through their radiators and this did not cool the circulating fluids. On-scene mechanics from the Tampa Fire Rescue maintenance shop recognized the potential for overheating problems and ran hoselines to the fronts of the trucks. The hoselines were then strapped to the front bumpers and cool mists of water were sprayed into the radiators.

Nearly every on-duty Tampa firefighter was in Ybor City, and mutual aid crews from many Pinellas County fire rescue agencies provided emergency services to the rest of the city. These fire and EMS crews responded to more than 100 other emergencies in Tampa in the 10 hours following the sparking of the Ybor blaze. They responded to medical calls, motor vehicle accidents and other structure fires in place of the Tampa fire crews.

The $32 million apartment project, which was at its most vulnerable phase of construction - three levels of wood framing, but no drywall or sprinklers - was a complete loss. (See box on page 90 for loss estimates on all involved buildings.) The developer has committed to rebuild and, as a gesture of appreciation for the firefighters' efforts, made a $25,000 donation to the Tampa Firefighter's Museum.

Scene Of Tragedies

This was not the first time Tampa Fire Rescue had been at this location. On April 11, 1999 a construction worker was crushed when a load of beams fell on him. Despite valiant rescue efforts, the man died at a hospital.

This also was not the first time that Tampa firefighters have responded to this area for a major conflagration. On March 1, 1908, a fire began in a boarding house at 1914-12th Ave., where the post office sits today. The fire, aided by a stiff breeze, quickly jumped to other nearby wooden structures. Fire crews were hampered in their efforts to suppress the blaze because of a poor water flow from crusty wooden water mains. Before the fire was contained five hours later, about 55 acres of Ybor City had burned. Lost were nearly 200 cottages that housed cigar makers and their families. Several two-story homes also were destroyed. Five cigar factories, 12 restaurants and several other businesses were ruined. At least 2,000 people were left homeless and unemployed.

Besides the area of origin, there are other similarities between the 1908 and 2000 Ybor fires. Most importantly, there were no serious injuries and no loss of life. At both fires the community rallied to aid the fire crews during the battle. Food, refreshments and fluids came from many different businesses and agencies. In the 1908 fire, with the large number of people homeless and unemployed, many service agencies came to the aid of those who had lost everything. After the 1908 fire, Ybor City had a great renaissance and was a central point for the community and socializing for several decades.

The 2000 fire slowed but has not diminished the on-going Ybor City revitalization efforts. The post office and apartments that were destroyed will be rebuilt. A major entertainment complex under construction will open in fall 2000. Tampa residents have a vested interest in maintaining the history of Ybor City as well as providing a safe and fun place for families and tourists to visit. A temporary wall of fire will not abate the modern resurgence of Ybor City.

MUTUAL AID COMPANIES: YBOR FIRE - MAY 19, 2000

Hillsborough County Fire Rescue
(A Shift)
Chief Bill Nesmith
Air Truck 15
Brush Trucks 18, 18A, 24
Engines 15, 18A, 24, 29, 32, 33
ALS Engine 9
Ladders 14, 17, 31
Rescues 14, 32, 33
Battalion Chiefs 2, 3, 4
Chief 5

Temple Terrace Fire Department
(A Shift)
Chief Ernie Hiers
Ladder 21

MacDill Air Force Base Fire Rescue
Chief John Warhul
Recalled all shifts

St. Petersburg Fire Rescue
Chief Jim Callahan
Engines 1, 7
Truck 1
District Chief 10

Pinellas Park Fire Rescue
Chief Ken Cramer
Engine 36
Truck 33

Largo Fire Rescue
Chief Carroll Williams
Engine 40
Truck 41

Seminole Fire Rescue
Chief Vicky Murphy
Engine 30

East Lake Fire Rescue
Chief Ron Taylor
Engine 58

Clearwater Fire Rescue
Chief Rowland Herald
Engine 49

Dunedin Fire Rescue Chief Bud Meyer
Truck 60

BUILDINGS DAMAGED OR DESTROYED

  • The Park at Ybor - 454 apartments under construction, estimated value $32 million, total loss.
  • U.S. Post Office, Ybor Station - Estimated value $4 million, total loss.
  • Tampa Bay Brewing Association - Estimated value $2.5 million, estimated loss $100,000.
  • U-Haul Corp. - Estimated value $1.5 million, estimated loss $100,000.
  • Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church - Estimated value $1.25 million, estimated loss $40,000.
  • Oliva Tobacco Co. - Estimated value $1.5 million, estimated loss $10,000.

Bill Wade is a Tampa Fire Rescue captain and public information officer.

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