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High-rise fire drill turns all too real

When sparks fly from a circuit breaker panel on the second floor of the condo, a firefighting exercise is no longer just a training drill.

By JENNIFER FARRELL, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 23, 2002


When sparks fly from a circuit breaker panel on the second floor of the condo, a firefighting exercise is no longer just a training drill.

CLEARWATER -- Half an hour into the fire drill, onlookers at the Sand Key high-rise started to get restless.

"Not very impressive so far," announced Jim Kuehn, building supervisor at nearby Cabana Club Condominiums. "I want to see some lady up there in a nightgown with a smoke bomb."

Nearby, Bernie Browne stood on the sidewalk, craning his neck skyward at the empty bucket of a ladder truck parked outside 1501 South Bay, an eight-story condominium on Gulfview Boulevard. "This is taking so long," he said.

Inside, Clearwater firefighters had begun a drill organized by the Sand Key Civic Association. Hoping to head off fatal fires like the one that killed two elderly residents last June at Dolphin Cove Condominiums in Island Estates, the association had invited people from nearby condos to show up and watch.

But soon the drill turned all too real.

As firefighters evacuated the upper floors, sparks shot out of a circuit breaker panel on the second floor, forcing their commanders to flee the building and call for reinforcements.

Clearwater firefighters pulled on helmets and bunker gear and dashed into the building.

Within minutes, more crews arrived from Belleair Bluffs and Largo, along with city police and sheriff's deputies.

"We're fortunate we were there," said Randy Hinder, deputy Clearwater fire chief and fire marshal. "This could have been something that happened at 2 o'clock in the morning."

Hinder said the sparks came from a circuit breaker panel in a concrete block room on the second floor, where all of the building's fire prevention controls are located.

Fire officials said the short did not trigger the building's alarm system. The spark was likely caused by a loose wire. It happened shortly after the fire pump was activated.

"It was like a flash bulb," said Hinder.

Firefighters carried equipment up the stairs and stretched a hose through the second-floor hallway, but found no fire.

Outside the building, many onlookers didn't know the sirens were for real.

"I thought that was all part of it," said Harold Fenton, treasurer of The Harbor condominium association, who watched the drill from the sidewalk. "How about that? That's great."

Kuehn, meanwhile, seemed confused later as fire trucks pulled away from the building.

"Are they still going to have a fire drill, or is this it?" he asked.

Harvey Maslowe, condo association president at 1501 South Bay, said the building's electrician would investigate the problem. Also, he said he hoped to schedule a post-mortem on the drill with fire officials to explain what happened to residents.

"Nobody's learning anything from what's going on," he said. "We'll have to learn in a review of what happened here today."

-- Jennifer Farrell can be reached at 445-4160 or farrell@sptimes.com.

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