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    Condo blaze claims second life

    By AARON SHAROCKMAN
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 30, 2002

    CLEARWATER -- An elderly woman became the second fatality Saturday in a condominium fire that has investigators and residents struggling to figure out how a simple kitchen fire could become so deadly.

    Jean Zetterberg, 81, died at 2:45 a.m. Saturday after suffering burns to 60 percent of her body. The Friday morning fire began in her son's adjacent fifth-floor condominium. Another victim, Robert Kelly, 75, was found dead by firefighters in the hallway near the flames, police said.

    Police said they believe the fire, at Dolphin Cove condominiums in Clearwater's Island Estates neighborhood, was an accident, though the cause and origin are still unknown.

    "There is nothing suspicious about this fire," said Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor.

    The 150 residents of the building were not allowed to stay in their homes Saturday because officials said it is not in compliance with fire code. Most stayed in local hotels or at the homes of relatives.

    Residents were allowed to gather some personal belongings, including medicine, clothing and money.

    "We're grabbing as much as we can, because we don't know when we'll be allowed back in," resident Margaret Lang said.

    The effort to fight Friday's fire was hampered by two things: A nearby hydrant malfunctioned, and so did a hose on the fifth floor where the fire broke out. On Saturday, fire officials also conceded firefighters broke policy by using elevators during their rescue.

    The fire started shortly after 5 a.m. Friday in the two-bedroom condominium unit that is home to Charles Zetterberg and his 14-year-old daughter Megan. He said he thought his mother was already safe when he left the building after trying to extinguish the fire, which he said started near his stove.

    But as he was escorted by firefighters down the smoky west stairwell, she was left in her living room. Nearby, a 1,000-degree inferno was shooting flames four stories high and spitting fire through the hallway.

    "She hangs on to me," Zetterberg said. "She had a bad leg, had a brace and used a cane. So she was waiting for me."

    On Saturday, Zetterberg suggested his mother was injured during her subsequent rescue by Clearwater firefighters. Fire officials said they could not confirm Zetterberg's account.

    He said he was told by firefighter Steve Colbert that Mrs. Zetterberg was burned exiting her condo with Colbert and fellow firefighter Karen Jackson. Colbert and Jackson suffered burns and were admitted and released from Tampa General Hospital's burn unit.

    Colbert, 36, a 7-year veteran, declined comment. Jackson, a 17-year veteran, was unavailable.

    Zetterberg said his mother was under her own power when she left the condo with the firefighters. They were headed to one of the building's two elevators.

    As the doors opened, Zetterberg said, an intense heat built up and was followed with a sharp blast of fire, scorching all three.

    "It was so hot that the helmet melted to (Colbert's) face," Zetterberg said.

    Assistant Fire Chief Charlie Flowers had not heard Zetterberg's story and said the opening of the elevator door would not cause a pocket of flames to burst. The two were purely coincidence, he said.

    A fire in a confined space would produce bursts of flames like the one Zetterberg described, Flowers said. The charred hallway walls are consistent with the explanation, he said.

    Clearwater Fire Chief Rowland Herald conceded that firefighters broke standard operating procedure by using elevators in attempting to evacuate several residents from the burning high rise, including Jean Zetterberg.

    A pamphlet prepared by the Clearwater fire department and distributed to high-rise residents says to avoid "using the building's elevator under any circumstances in the event of a fire."

    The National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit group that educates firefighters, said it is never appropriate to use an elevator during a fire because fire and smoke often travel through the shaft.

    But Herald said elevators can be a viable option under special circumstances. He did not question his firefighters' judgment Friday.

    "In general, we evacuate through the stairwells," Herald said. "However, if the situation warrants, I would question the judgment of any firefighter who would bypass an immediate means of egress just because of general guidelines."

    Residents Virginia and Thomas Wright were afraid to use the elevator when it was their turn to leave. When they saw smoke coming from the elevator door, they knew they needed to take the stairs.

    "Oh, you couldn't use the elevator," Wright said. "There was smoke shooting right out from the bottom. And we were on the 11th floor."

    The Wrights and other residents went back into Dolphin Cove on Saturday to gather personal belongings while they wait for word from fire and building officials that they can re-enter.

    Herald said the building is not up to fire code and repairs must be made. It was cited Friday for violations.

    Many of the emergency exits to the building's west and east stairwells have faulty door closures, fire inspector Duanne Anderson said. The doors remained open during the fire Friday, causing smoke to filter through the stairwell, Anderson said.

    The building's contractors must fix the doors before residents are allowed back in.

    Fire officials don't know when that may be.

    In the meantime, residents are scattering across the county, staying with family or at area hotels. Four displaced by the fire spent Friday night in a hotel courtesy of the Red Cross.

    The city is also investigating why the fire hydrant nearest the fire didn't work Friday. Mayor Brian Aungst said he wants an answer and expects to get it.

    "We have to find out why," Aungst said. "And I'm confident that we will."

    "The chief is on top of this, and I have complete confidence in all our firefighters."

    -- Times Staff Writer Anne Lindberg contributed to this report.

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