It appears the machine in the shop's front malfunctioned and spewed paint thinner into the air, sparking the blaze that torched much of James Auto Body.
By JANETTE NEUWAHL
Published June 24, 2004
LARGO - A fire that blazed through James Auto Body on Tuesday night was ignited by a machine used to recycle paint and paint thinner, fire inspectors said Wednesday afternoon.
The department spent most of the day investigating the cause of the two-alarm fire that ravaged most of the small, L-shaped auto repair shop at 2130 Pine Forest Drive, off East Bay Drive.
After searching through the charred debris, fire inspectors determined that the fire was started by natural causes and then found the small paint recycling device stored in the spray room where the initial explosion began. The recycling machine separated liquid paint thinner from the pigment and was used for many years without problems by the shop's owner, James Hoskinson.
"We reuse all of our materials, even leftover paint, by separating the liquid thinners from paint product . . . and it appears it blew a gasket and spewed hot thinner into the air," said Hoskinson, who started James Auto Body in 1976.
No employees were injured in the fire, but two firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion, and one more suffered minor burns. All three were treated and released from Largo Medical Center on Tuesday night.
The fire was first reported about 6:20 p.m. Tuesday when shop employees working on cars in the rear body booths smelled smoke and called 911. Thirty-five firefighters from Largo, Clearwater, Seminole and Pinellas Park worked for five hours to contain the fire, said Deputy Chief Tom Tarulli of the Largo Fire Department.
The blaze ruined more than half of the facility. Fire inspectors estimated damage at $400,000, Tarulli said.
"Any time you have vehicles burning in a garage, it makes for a very hot fire," he said. "In this case, the paint thinners and auto body equipment created such a raging fire that destroyed a lot of evidence, so it was difficult to find the source of the fire."
At the time of the fire, Hoskinson said about 14 cars were in the body shop. Firefighters and employees managed to drive all but one of the cars out of danger. The only car destroyed was a Chevrolet Cavalier that was in the paint room next to the machine, Hoskinson said.
The car can be replaced by the business's garage keeper's insurance, and all of the other cars will be transferred to a newer shop, James Auto Body in Palm Harbor, he said. Hoskinson's building and infrastructure insurance should cover the cost of replacing the charred front half of the business.
"My insurance is going to just cover it frugally, but there's no cushion in there," Hoskinson said. "Fortunately, my second store can house my employees and keep up our income, but this could be devastating for a small business."
Because the Largo shop's front office was completely gutted, Hoskinson plans to run his business from the newer shop in the meantime. All 10 employees at the Largo shop will be transferred to the 2-year-old Palm Harbor garage. Customers can also pick up their cars there, Hoskinson added.
The Largo employees are already helping Hoskinson pick up the pieces by calling customers and moving the cars.
"This building was my first enterprise, and so there's a lot of sentimental attachment to it," Hoskinson said. "Several employees just celebrated 10 years with me, and so everyone's completely sick about it, but my crew is like an army of soldiers right behind me, and everyone is digging in tackling various projects - everyone's just pitched in. "