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Tower of terror

The crew hired to clean up the Sulphur Springs Water Tower was ready for almost anything creepy, crawly and potentially poisonous that it could imagine. The moving ceiling was a bit surprising, though.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published July 13, 2003

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[Times photos: John Pendygraft]
The sun sets behind the Sulphur Springs Water Tower in north Tampa. It was built in 1927 as a centerpiece for an amusement park and a community along the Hillsborough River. Closed for decades, the city bought it last year and is making it part of a park.
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Inside the tower, Oscar Gomez of Cornerstone Abatement & Demolition of Tampa puts on protective gear, including a mask, to clean up the inside of the tower. The main job of the three-person crew was to get rid of the pigeon droppings.


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Meet one of the tower’s recently evicted residents, a giant water bug whose fang injects venom.
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Oscar Gomez lowers a plastic bag filled with pigeon droppings and debris from the fourth floor of the 214-foot tower.

TAMPA - Everybody is in favor of history these days. Politicians, bureaucrats, archaeologists, teachers, park managers all want to preserve historic buildings. Nature, however, has different ideas. Wet things, pop-eyed things with antennae, black things with crunching mandibles care only about eating and sleeping. An old building is bacon and eggs to nature. A dark corner in a dilapidated structure is better than a luxury suite at the Ritz.

The other day, when Rafael Morales looked at the Sulphur Springs Water Tower, he had a lot on his mind. One thing was the logistics of breaking into a tower sealed shut for more than a decade. Another was what he might find and what he would have to do once he broke in.

"It's going to be a challenging job," he said.

Rafael Morales, 46, is the taciturn, sad-eyed operations manager of a Tampa business known as Cornerstone Abatement & Demolition. Morales is expert in asbestos removal, lead abatement, mold remediation and demolition. He is one of those men who can do just about anything with his hands, who can improvise a solution to a technical problem in the blink of an eye.

Every once in a while he has to go nose to nose with nature. He grew up in Mexico, home of the tarantula spider, which prepared him psychologically to work in Florida, where nature often arrives with hairy leg or dripping fang, or humorously feels compelled to fly directly at a man's face in the dark.

Nature can be dangerous, but just as often, it is merely gross.

The job at the Sulphur Springs Water Tower probably should have gone to the Crocodile Hunter or somebody even braver. Instead, it fell upon the shoulders of Morales and his crew.

Good thing they don't scare easily.

A dreamer's vision

What was living inside the tower? Well, for a start, Morales had been warned about the pigeons. Though the tower's ground floor had long been sealed, the open windows of the upper floors had allowed anything with wings to get in. Pigeons eat, and what goes in one end comes out the other. Their mess required cleaning. But pigeons were just half of it. On the sealed-off ground floor some real Edgar Allan Poe stuff was going on.

More about that later. First, a little history.

The old tower is probably the best-known, least-known landmark in the Tampa Bay area. Anyone who drives along Interstate 275 through the north part of the city notices it. Yet few people except old-timers know the history of the edifice at the corner of Florida Avenue and Bird Street.

It was built by a dreamer and schemer named Josiah Richardson in 1927. He was in the process of creating a kind of amusement park and community along the Hillsborough River when it dawned on him that he'd need a dependable supply of water.

He disdained ordinary, and he disdained cheap. Instead of a typical Florida water tower - metal legs, a big bulb at the top - he built a tower that more resembled a lighthouse or a medieval castle. His construction crew excavated 45 feet straight into the rock, down to a spring, for the foundation. Above the ground the tower rose 214 feet. The whole shebang cost $180,000, a fortune in Roaring '20s Florida.

Richardson also put up a sprawling shopping arcade that in some ways was Florida's first mall. He built a huge water slide, a bathhouse and an alligator farm. He built a hotel and tourist cottages. "It was the Coney Island of Tampa," says University of South Florida history professor Gary Mormino.

From miles away the tower was visible. Tourists and residents purchased thousands of postcards of its likeness to mail to snow-bound Northerners. The stuff of Florida dreams, the tower seemed almost worthy of a Stephen Foster melody.

The dream turned sour when a flood overwhelmed the park in 1933. The Depression killed tourism. Then came the war. Richardson lost his fortune and just about everything else. Decades later, the interstate cut through the property, forever dividing the community. The shopping arcade was bulldozed to make way for a dog-track parking lot. Richardson died, and Tampa moved on.

But the tower remained.

No longer a tourist attraction, it became a make-out spot for teenagers. They scrawled graffiti, drank beer, smoked pot and had sex. A couple of kids climbed to the top but were afraid to climb down. The fire department had to rescue them.

A high fence was built around the property. Workers sealed tower doors with concrete.

The enemy has wings

Rafael Morales is a talented man, but unlike a bat, unlike a pigeon, unlike a palmetto bug, he has never learned to fly. If he were going to break into the tower and do his job, he couldn't fly through the upper windows. He would have to go through the ground floor the hard way, with sweat and muscle, saw and jackhammer.

Last year the city of Tampa bought the tower, and 13 acres around it, from McDill Columbus Corp. for $2.85-million. One day the property will be part of the Sulphur Springs Park and connect public land on both sides of the interstate. The park likely will include picnic shelters, barbecue pits, hiking paths, a fishing dock and maybe access to the tower. If nothing else, lights will be installed soon and the tower will be visible all over north Tampa.

A while back, a brave urban planner named Tom Johnston, who wanted to inspect the property, hired a cherry-picker truck to help him get into the tower. He entered through a third-floor window. There is no elevator, so he had to climb a wormy, rotting, 76-year-old ladder.

Even worse was the powdery stuff covering floors and window sills.

For decades, pigeons had been using the tower for a hotel - and a toilet.

"I just wanted to see what we were up against," Johnston said.

He saw, gulped, and he left. Later, he got heat from his boss, who told him he had done something foolish. "Don't go up there again," the boss said. "Old ladders are dangerous. And pigeon droppings can make you sick."

His boss wasn't joshing. A yeast found in pigeon droppings, Cryptococcus neoformans, is especially unpleasant when inhaled. According to Fundamentals of Microbiology, "should the cells get into the bloodstream and localize the meninges (covering the brain and spinal cord), piercing headaches, stiffness in the neck and paralysis could occur. If left untreated, this infection may be fatal."

That's how Rafael Morales ended up with the job. He and his crew were hired guns. Before history could be preserved, nature had to be run out of Dodge.

First, scare away the pigeons. Next, clean up their poop. Third, make the place safe for future work crews. Sounded easy enough.

Breaking through

John Penvose is Rafael Morales' boss and owner of Cornerstone. They started together in Houston about two decades ago and moved to Florida. They do a lot of demolition work. Usually, they do inside jobs; that is, they enter an old building through an old-fashioned door and remove crumbling, rotting stuff so the place can be renovated.

"Every job is different," Penvose said. He is 54 and has seen the insides of buildings so dilapidated, they would make his hair turn gray if he had more of it. "Lots of rats. Snakes. One time I was in an old building and a cat suddenly hissed in my face. That doesn't sound like much, but I didn't know it was there, and it scared me to death. Even worse is going into an old building, throwing open a door and looking into the eyes of some transient person just standing there. Well, that shouldn't be a problem here."

Only Superman could have found his way into the Sulphur Springs tower.

Morales nodded to his two helpers, Oscar Gomez and Manuel Hernandez, who picked up a big electric saw and attacked the sealed doorway. The plaster flew, and they dripped with sweat. The plaster settled on their wet skin until they looked like ghosts.

Next they picked up an 80-pound jackhammer too heavy to be used by one man. Together they hammered at concrete that yielded grudgingly. Every few minutes they had to take a break to catch their breath and rest for the next task.

Gomez and Hernandez, who are in their 20s, are robust young men who enjoy their food. They are built like Babe Ruth and swing sledgehammers like the Babe, too. Bang! Bang! Concrete fell away in large chunks.

"The Devil Rays could use them," Morales said. "They are sluggers."

The last few paragraphs probably took about 30 seconds to read. In real life, opening the entrance to the tower took four hours. Work. Rest. Work. Dragonflies grabbed mosquitoes, and wasps hovered, and every once in a while, a frog would croak from the nearby river. Then the jackhammer would start all over again.

Eventually, the jackhammer broke through, and musty air poured out of the hole. Peeking through the hole, Oscar Gomez was careful not to put his eye too close just in case a mummy reached out for his throat.

The ceiling lives

They got inside. It was dark and damp. The walls wept with humidity, and faint scraping noises came from the darkness. But more about that Blair Witch Project stuff later.

Their main job, after all, was to remove pigeon droppings from the seven levels above. They carried in ladders and floor by floor worked their way up the tower. They wore white coverall suits and masks. For hours they shoveled pigeon droppings off floors and used powerful vacuums to suck up anything they missed. They filled heavy plastic bags with droppings and lowered the bags by rope through the windows to the ground. The bags were trucked to Dumpsters, and the Dumpsters were trucked to landfills.

"It's not fun," Oscar Gomez said. "But it wasn't terrible."

What was terrible was the ground floor. That had to be cleaned, too.

The ground floor, windowless and dark, was wet and slippery like the inside of the Nostromo in that Alien movie. In the middle of the floor was a well, connected to the spring. In a flashlight beam, the water in the well looked surprisingly clear, though filled with debris, bottles and shoes and heaven knows what else. Something moved near the bottom.

How did an eel get in there? Who knows? Had it come up through the spring? Who knows. What was it eating? Easier to explain.

The walls were black with scum. The floor was worse. "What is this stuff?" Rafael Morales said, staring at a floor that seemed to be covered with old coffee grounds. Morales aimed his flashlight at the ceiling above.

The ceiling was moving. That is, the ceiling seemed to have a life of its own. Morales, who has lived in Florida long enough to be brave when confronted by lizards, frogs and the occasional garden snake, looked alarmed.

In the flashlight beam danced many cockroaches. Not one or two, but dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands. It was hard to tell in the dim light. They covered parts of the walls and the ceilings, and the pipes and the corners. They hated light. From time to time a big cockroach fell from the ceiling and flew off into the dark.

Everybody ducked.

"Well," Morales whispered, "now we know what's in here."

Now he knew the origin of the coffee grounds at his feet. Cockroach droppings.

"Time to leave."

Outside, Morales and his macho workers giggled and wiped their boots on the grass, on rocks and on corners of the building for a long time. Then they wiped their boots again. Shuddering, they spoke of the long showers they were going to take when they got home.

Later Morales drove to a Home Depot and walked to the pesticide aisle. He filled his cart with 8 cans. Late in the afternoon, he returned to the tower and placed the bug bombs inside the tower and set them off.

The next morning all the roaches were dead. But nature, as Morales knows, doesn't give up without a fight. As workers swept up cockroach bodies, other things emerged from corners, still alive and kicking.

Somebody trotted out carrying something wrapped in cloth. It was large and black and ominous.

A giant water bug, it was the notorious Hemiptera belostomatidae, also known as the toe-biter. They have pincers and a fang that injects venom into their victims, often minnows, frogs and, of course, cockroaches. The fang was dripping. In the tower, in the dark, fetid atmosphere of the ground floor, giant water bugs had discovered their own delicatessen.

"Ah, nature," Rafael Morales said.

Sometimes nature is Bambi and Thumper. But that's in the forest primeval. In a city, in a historic building, in the dark shadows, nature often is less cuddly.

[Last modified July 10, 2003, 08:05:14]


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