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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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.