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Blaze kindles hydrant concern

Saturday's condo fire highlights an issue that has gone unresolved in the Lealman area for years - there aren't enough fire hydrants.

Published June 24, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG - For years, Lealman firefighters have carried extra hoses on their trucks because of a shortage of fire hydrants in parts of their community.

It's a shortcoming Pinellas County and St. Petersburg city officials knew about long before the fire Saturday that ravaged a 54-unit building at Town Apartments North, leaving dozens of senior citizens homeless.

The county thinks St. Petersburg, which provides water to parts of unincorporated Lealman, should install more hydrants. The city says it is willing to work with the county and is waiting for a priority list.

Years have passed without a resolution, a concern in a county with aging condominium and apartment complexes.

"Unfortunately, it takes something like this to wake everybody up. We're fortunate nobody died," said Ray Neri, president of the Lealman Community Association. "Why do we wait for something like this, a tragedy, for everybody to respond?

"I think it should have been done way back when," Neri said. It has long irritated Lealman residents that they pay a 25 percent surcharge to St. Petersburg for water but cannot get enough hydrants, he said.

Investigators have all but ruled out arson in the fire Saturday.

"It was a freak accident and went from there," Lealman fire Marshal Bob Christy said.

When firefighters arrived at the fire Saturday about 1:35 p.m., flames were shooting 30 feet into the air. Black smoke cloaked firefighters, making it hard to see as they raced residents to safety.

As firefighters turned their efforts to the blaze, they quickly realized they did not have enough water. The complex had only two private hydrants, all that was required when it was built in 1966.

In addition, the closest of the two was about 800 feet away, the equivalent of eight fire hoses, Lealman fire Chief Rick Graham said.

Firefighters turned to the public hydrants, which were even farther away. The nearest was on 62nd Avenue N, Graham said. They also turned to the pond across the drive from the building, sending a Pinellas Park staff member back to his station to retrieve the necessary pumping equipment.

It was too little, too late for the three-story building.

"That third floor is destroyed. Literally destroyed. The second floor has a lot of damage," Christy said. "We have some heavy damage on the first floor."

It's unclear whether additional hydrants would have limited the damage, or if the building is a total loss. County building officials recommend that a structural engineer make that decision. Until then, damage estimates will not be available.

Also uncertain is the total amount of property loss suffered by residents. The tenant-owned condos are valued at under $50,000 each. Lealman firefighters spent part of Sunday and Monday picking through apartments to reclaim some personal property requested by residents. At times, they had to edge their way across beams because wooden floors had been destroyed.

Fred Bonacorda, 70, was lucky. Firefighters found some memorabilia he had collected over 20 years breeding and training racehorses.

"It's not the end of my life," Bonacorda said. "Yesterday was history and tomorrow is a mystery."

He and his wife will stay with her twin sister, elsewhere in the complex.

Some weren't as fortunate.

"I'm sorry, I hate to tell you that there's just nothing in there," Lealman firefighter Henry Fultz told one elderly woman.

Pinellas County officials spent part of the weekend studying what happened. One focus was the number of available hydrants.

Officials have long known that parts of the unincorporated Lealman area have too few hydrants.

For the most part, the county and Lealman fire officials blame St. Petersburg. Providing water carries an obligation to provide an adequate number of hydrants, they argue. Recently, the county and city tried to work out a solution.

Patti Anderson, St. Petersburg's water resources director, conceded some spots in Lealman do not have enough hydrants.

But a lack of public hydrants was not the issue at Town Apartments North, Anderson said.

The problem was a lack of private hydrants. It was the complex's duty to upgrade and increase fire defenses, she said. Governments cannot force private areas to upgrade, she said. Current rules today would require a hydrant within 500 feet of every building, far closer than the 800 feet firefighters struggled with Saturday.

Deputy Mayor Tish Elston agreed, saying, "If on-site hydrants weren't adequate, that's one of those situations."

Adele Cisniewicz, president of the Town Apartments Complex Association, could not be reached Monday night.

It's a situation that could happen again, conceded assistant county administrator Gay Lancaster.

When complexes like Town Apartments North were built, they complied to the existing codes, she said. As fire codes became more strict, they were not required to retrofit, a sometimes expensive proposition.

So the question becomes whether the government should be aware of that and make sure public hydrants are available nearby as a backup.

"I don't think that's an easily resolved issue," Lancaster said.

In the long run, she said, it will be a policy decision for elected officials to make.

- Staff writer Adrienne Lu contributed to this report.

[Last modified June 24, 2003, 01:47:56]

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