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Fire consumes academy

Moments after sparks send young gymnasts scurrying, the building explodes into a roaring fire.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2000

BROOKSVILLE -- Christine Alberts was practicing on the balance beam Thursday night when sparks suddenly began raining down on her.

"The light blew out and there were sparks falling," said the 11-year-old.

Moments after Christine and four other girls from 7 to 11 years old bolted from the Suncoast North Gymnastics Academy, the two-story building at the Hernando County Airport Industrial Park exploded in flames.

Parents and coaches were still trying to drive their cars from the parking lot when the buildings' windows blew out and pieces of the roof started to collapse.

The girls stood agape in a nearby open field, the whooshing sound of the explosions driving most to tears.

"We were going to die, that's what I thought," said 10-year-old Nicole Birkins.

Nicole's mother, Pam Birkins, said she and others were stunned by the speed of the fire, which began about 8:30.

A gymnastics coach saw the sparks from the lighting, noticed smoke coming from the insulation and called the fire department.

But senior coach Jill Leverich thought the fire could be put out with an extinguisher. The girls were evacuated as a precaution.

It quickly became apparent that the extinguisher would not be enough to handle the fire in the 15,000-square-foot building. Four fire engines and a ladder truck from fire agencies in Hernando and Pasco counties converged on the scene at California Street and Flight Path Drive. The fire was still smoldering nearly two hours after it began.

Fire officials would not comment on the cause of the fire, pending further investigation. But the coaches at the complex insisted it was caused by an electrical problem.

Leverich was nearly in tears as she watched steam rise off the burned-out skeleton of the gym, along with the soot and debris from the roof that had crashed down on her Mercedes.

"I said, "We can put this out, we can put this out.' I went outside to get a hose and felt this really strong wind and all of a sudden -- pop, pop, pop! The windows exploded," she said.

"It just killed us because we were just starting to get the team together. We went from placing 14th and 13th last year to fourth and fifth this year," Leverich said.

A fund would be set up for donations to rebuild the gym or find a new facility, she said. In the meantime, parents said they were simply happy that everyone got out alive.

"You wouldn't expect a fire to go up like this," Birkins said.

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