Fire's damage obscures cause

The Red Cross calls on citizens to help those left homeless by a fire at Valencia Apartments.

Published February 2, 2006

TAMPA - Fire damage at a north Tampa apartment building is so extensive, it will take investigators at least another day or two to determine the cause of the fire and whether any animals perished in the Tuesday blaze.

The best indicator of what started the fire at Valencia Apartments near E Fletcher Avenue and N 15th Street will likely come from video footage from a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office helicopter. It was the helicopter, doing routine neighborhood checks, that first spotted smoke coming from the attic of the building and called the fire department.

The first fire crew was on the scene within five minutes, said Hillsborough County Fire Rescue spokesman Ray Yeakley. But flames spread through the wood structure quickly, and 17 fire trucks and around 50 firefighters could not prevent fire, smoke and water damage to most of Building 7 at the apartment complex.

"It was all wood structure from the ground up," Yeakley said. "Once (a structure) like this gets going, it goes up like a match box."

No one was injured in the fire, which caused a "ballpark figure estimate" of $750,000 in damages, Yeakley said. But several people - including families, college students and elderly tenants - are now without homes.

The Tampa Bay chapter of the Red Cross provided hotel accommodations for seven of the families, while others stayed with friends or relatives. Red Cross spokesman Tim Teahan said 23 people were displaced because of the fire and needed food, clothing and financial help.

The Valencia Apartments, formerly named La Place Apartments, have been the site of two to three fires in the last six years, Yeakley said. The complex was undergoing renovations at the time of the fire.

Some tenants from the damaged building said they lost pets, but Yeakley said no animal remains have been been found yet.

"I'd hate to think that something died in there, but honestly, we had very limited access to the building once the fire was out," he said. "And it may take awhile for us to determine if any animals were in the building."

Emily Nipps can be reached at 813 269-5313 or nipps@sptimes.com