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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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.