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Fire ravages condos

The mostly older residents, driven from their homes, awake in temporary accommodations this morning as firefighters, who were hampered by a lack of water, figure out what caused the blaze.

Published June 22, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - Theresa Meza paced the pavement, cigarette in one hand, cordless phone in the other, as flames licked off the roof of her condominium building.

From the street, she could see her unit was a charred shell, and the fire was rapidly spreading from there.

"I was in the bathroom, and the next thing I knew, the whole place was on fire," said Meza, 62, standing barefoot, her hair singed by the heat. "I'm shaking like a leaf."

Meza grabbed a fire extinguisher as she ran out of the building. It would do nothing to quell this monster.

Water supply problems, which at one point forced firefighters to siphon water from a pond, and wind gusts hampered efforts to suppress the inferno at Town Apartments North on Saturday afternoon. It took more than 40 engines, tankers and trucks and about 75 firefighters to get the blaze under control.

At least two firefighters and five others were taken to hospitals for minor injuries or health problems. No deaths were reported.

Dozens of senior citizens in the 54-unit Nautilus building were left homeless. The building, built in the 1960s, did not have a sprinkler system, and the third floor was destroyed. Many residents lost medicine and a lifetime's worth of belongings.

"We are all so broken-hearted about this," said Adele Cisniewicz, president of the Town Apartments Complex Association.

An arson task force of Pinellas County law enforcement agencies is investigating the cause of the fire.

Fire officials said someone called the 911 center at 1:25 p.m. to report "explosives" going off at the building at 1950 59th Ave. N. Investigators are looking into whether chemicals such as paint thinner ignited in one of the units where kitchen work was being done.

"There was a cell phone caller who called in and said there was a can of explosives on fire," said Lealman Fire Chief Rick Graham.

Seven minutes after the emergency call, the first fire unit arrived on scene.

By then, Meza, the owner of Unit 311, where the fire started, was out in the street.

"My whole life went up," she said, trembling. She lived there eight years. "Everything's gone."

Rousing the elderly residents

David Woltman was lounging in the apartment complex pool when the sky began to darken.

At first, the 37-year-old visitor from Effingham, Ill., assumed an early afternoon thunderstorm was approaching. But the clouds were much too low. It had to be smoke.

Woltman sprang from the pool and alerted his wife, Julie, and father-in-law, Dean Randall, who lives in the complex, which residents said was for those 55 and over. The trio began pounding on doors, frantically trying to rouse the elderly residents.

"We could only get down to the corner of the building because there was so much smoke swirling," Woltman said.

The confusion made some frightened residents hesitant to leave their homes.

"One gentleman would not come out because of the way I was dressed," said Woltman, who was still wearing his swimming trunks.

Raging flames crackled as residents stood in shock, watching the thick cloud of smoke expand and chunks of the building crumble. The odor of melting plastic filled the air.

"Oh, my God," said Mary Feminella, 88, of Seminole. "I can't believe this. I can't believe this is happening, and it's not my complex."

She was visiting Marjorie Ward, who lived in the bottom floor of the burning building. They were getting ready to eat ravioli with sauce Feminella made from scratch.

"We thought it was fog by the front door," said Ward, 73. "So I opened my door, and it was smoke."

Next thing they knew, a woman was running down the hall, telling everyone to evacuate.

Stephanie Brinkley, 19, who lives on the second floor with her 63-year-old father, Charles, was in the living room when she heard sirens.

"We looked out the window and everything was black, everything was in flames," Brinkley said. She moved into the apartment about a month ago after she and her father relocated from Canton, Ohio. "All the smoke and everything - it was horrible."

They escaped unharmed.

Will Reeves, who was shopping at the nearby Dollar General store when the fire erupted, ran home to grab his video camera.

"The smoke was so bad you couldn't see the traffic on 62nd (Avenue N)," Reeves said.

Elsewhere at the condo complex, which Cisniewicz said has 763 residents, victims gathered in the clubhouse. One elderly woman was clad in a nightgown. Others huddled in blankets.

Red Cross volunteers circulated with a list of the names of those who lived in the burned-out building, asking residents when they had last seen their neighbors.

Fire officials wouldn't detail the conditions of patients, or confirm that they were complex residents. But they said the civilians who were taken to hospitals went for non-fire-related conditions.

"It's remarkable, considering the damage and the number of people involved, that everyone seems to have fared pretty well," said David Wilson, spokesman for the Tampa Bay Chapter of the American Red Cross.

Not enough water in the beginning

About 75 firefighters from at least eight fire agencies responded to the fire. Their first priority was to evacuate residents from the burning building.

From the onset, firefighters were hampered by a poor water supply. The complex had two hydrants. Firefighters had to attach hose to two other hydrants offsite, which, because of the distance, lessened water pressure from those sources.

In the initial stages of the fires, when flames were shooting through the roof, firefighters only had water from one of the complex hydrants.

"There definitely was a water supply problem," said Lou Sclafani, Pinellas Park district fire chief. "One hydrant for that entire building isn't enough."

About 11/2 hours after the fire was reported, firefighters started pumping water from a pond behind the building. Firefighters had to wait for proper hoses.

"It was a big deal to lay in extra lines and draft out of the pond," Sclafani said.

Residents stood in anguish, wondering why more couldn't be done.

"Why aren't they using the water?" cried out Meza, the owner of Unit 311.

Fire officials said that even if the water supply was not a problem, they would have waited to go after residents first.

"They chose not to fight that fire," Sclafani said. "They chose to bring people out of the building because of the possibility of an explosion."

Meanwhile, residents are staying with friends, relatives or with accommodations provided by the Red Cross.

Fire officials had no damage estimate late Saturday.

"We have to see what condition the building is in, whether it can be rebuilt or whether it has to be torn down," said Cisniewicz, the president of the condo complex association. "Nobody's sure of that yet."

- Times staff writers Carrie Johnson, Adrienne Lu and Anne Lindberg contributed to this report.

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