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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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.