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At ground zero with the crew of Engine 6

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 20, 2000


The fire was an accident, not another arson.

The apartments weren't finished. Nobody was living in them. So this wasn't the kind of fire a man had to enter.

Because this is May, not August, the temperature was 90, not 100.

How much worse it could have been for Richard Tatum and his two-man crew from the Palmetto Beach fire station.

The wind was at their backs, not in their faces, when they jumped out of Engine No. 6 and into the section of 11th Avenue and 20th Street.

This meant the fire would burn away from them, not toward them. But they were alone, the first on the scene.

The call had sounded fairly routine. Nobody said anything about the equivalent of a million wooden match sticks, the sprawling skeleton of an apartment complex rising near where a downed power line was sparking.

Tatum and his men turned a 200-gallon-per-minute hose on the flames that quickly jumped to a palm tree, a utility pole, a stack of wood. They couldn't take aim straight at the power line, because they might have died on the spot. Water is an almost perfect conductor of electricity.

The fire began to climb up the framework of the apartments.

The men moved as if in a dance. The heat became so intense, Tatum said, "I couldn't stand in one place."

He got back into the truck and backed it away from the blaze. The men aimed their biggest gun -- a device called a main stream, mounted on the truck like an automatic weapon -- on the rising flames. It unloaded 1,000 gallons of water a minute.

But they might as well have been trying to fill the ocean. "We just watched as the place went," Tatum said. Even for him, with 19 years on the fire line, "It was awesome."

He backed up the truck again. Some lights on Engine No. 6 melted. Much longer, and the paint job would have begun to peel. The windshield would have cracked.

By then, Tatum later figured, two minutes had gone by.

He moved Engine No. 6 across the street into a parking lot of a lovingly restored cigar factory that houses the Ybor City Brewing Company. Saving it became the priority of Engine No. 6.

They ran a hose into the attic in case the roof caught fire, the very thing that later happened to the post office. And, recalled Tatum, "We aimed the nozzle at the front of the building to cool it off."

He has a freckled face that belongs on a recruiting poster. He talked without boasting. Around him, other men were quietly breaking down the line that had been run up the outside stairs of the brewery and into the brewery attic. Behind him were two blocks of blackened, smashed wood.

Two silhouettes, one all curves, the other a network of straight lines, rose from the smoking piles. They were the remains of a tree and a parking garage.

Nearby was the post office, with a hole in the middle. In front of it, the round lamps of Ybor's famous four-bulb iron street lights hung in grotesque shapes made as they melted in the heat.

I walked over to where Tatum had met his enemy. The utility pole that had held up the snapped wire smoldered like a cigar stub. Next to that, in domino fashion, lay the burned trunk of the first palm to burn. Next to that stood what was left of the forklift that had pulled down the power line.

This was ground zero.

When we looked up at the top of the forklift, we saw the scorch mark where the huge metal arm of the machine had met the wire, where the sparks first jumped, where the flames first rose and where Richard Tatum's courage kicked into action.

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