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Out of control

Forklift accident sparks massive fire in Ybor City that destroys $33-million apartment complex, post office.

By A SPECIAL REPORT by KATHRYN WEXLER, DAVID KARP, LARRY DOUGHERTY, LEANORA MINAI, BABITA PERSAUD, JEFF TESTERMAN, and THOMAS FRENCH of the Times staff

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 20, 2000


TAMPA -- Friday morning, before it all began, Tampa Mayor Dick Greco stood before a banquet hall at the new Waterside Marriott, welcoming 500 out-of-town guests.

The mood was exuberant. The night before, the guests had been treated to fireworks on Hillsborough Bay. Now they were enjoying a breakfast of eggs, bacon and ham, fresh fruit and a speech from the mayor.

Greco -- relaxed in a silk shirt -- spoke proudly about all the new developments in Tampa. There was the Marriott, the shops by the Florida Aquarium, the 454-apartment complex that Camden Development was building in Ybor City. He encouraged his guests to visit Ybor.

Applause filled the room. As Greco sat down, a hotel employee rushed up and told him he needed to call his office immediately. There was an emergency.

Greco called his secretary, Dolores.

"Camden is on fire," she told him.

Camden was the apartment complex the mayor had just been touting.

Greco hurried for the hotel door. He saw the huge pillar of smoke, rising to the east.

"Oh my God," he said.

* * *

It was a roiling wall of flame, more than 100 feet high.

By the time exhausted firefighters had brought the blaze under control, it had consumed Camden Development's half-built Park at Ybor City apartment complex. Then, when the fire had seemingly been tamed, it spread to a U.S. post office. No one was killed, but several firefighters required medical attention. Ultimately, some $40-million of property was destroyed.

"I have been here 22 years," said Special Operations Chief Robert Simmons of Tampa Fire Rescue, "and I have never seen two full city blocks burning."

It began with a snapped power line.

According to fire investigators, Jose Chirino, 26, was operating a forklift at the apartment complex's construction site on N 20th Street. Chirino, the investigators said, was performing a routine maneuver, hoisting trusses onto the third-floor of the complex when the machine's 40-foot arm broke a 7,620-volt power line.

The wire popped and snaked to the ground, dropping onto a chain link fence below and igniting a small patch of grass.

Chirino jumped for his life.

"He dove headfirst from the forklift, which is the only thing that saved his life," said Jim Burden, whose company was doing the ironwork on one of the apartment complex's parking garages.

The live wire caught on some construction debris lying near the fence and then set fire to a nearby palm tree.

"Next thing you know, whoosh!" said Roy Nesbit, an ironworker who was working nearby.

A pile of wood started to ignite. Scores of construction workers took off, the tools on their belts bobbing around their hips.

"Fire! Fire! Fire!" they yelled, rushing away from the orange glow.

* * *

At 8:53, a secretary dialed 911 from the third floor of the red-brick Ybor City Brewing Co. building. She could see flames from her window.

Tampa Fire Rescue's Station 4 was a block away, separated from the site of the fire only by a parking lot. Eric Alexander, a packaging supervisor in the building, ran across the lot and banged on the door of the fire station.

"The building is on fire," he yelled.

But firefighters normally at that station had taken their engine to a radio repair shop elsewhere in the city. Dispatchers were forced to contact Station 6, a dozen blocks away.

Six minutes later, the first engines arrived at N 20th Street. Water lines were laid and hydrants torqued.

Then, another delay.

Dousing the flames meant getting dangerously close to the jumping, live wire. To avoid electrocution, the firefighters had to back away. They were preparing to spray hoses from a safe distance when the wind kicked up and carried the flames westward into the apartment complex.

"Within 15 minutes the whole damn apartment building was on fire," said Rolando Contreras, who was supervising the forklift operator.

The three-story apartments, fitted with windows but not yet doors, had become a massive bonfire. The connected units were made of compressed wood. Piles of white double sheet rock, used to stop fires from spreading between units, lay nearby awaiting installation.

There was a series of rapid explosions. From the main fire station in downtown Tampa, officials in a meeting heard the fire a mile away.

As Special Operations Chief Simmons drove to the scene, he was thinking of plans to save the apartments. But the moment he arrived, he could see the battle was already lost. He said so to fire Chief Pete Botto, already on the scene.

"He knew that," Simmons said. "Everyone who pulled up knew that."

Bright red flames rolled in soaring waves, swallowing the structures. Black, billowing clouds shot toward the sky. Even where the flames had died down, the scene quivered with heat.

Eventually, about 150 firefighters -- drawn from stations across the Tampa Bay area -- fought the blaze. Firefighters from Hillsborough County, Temple Terrace, Seminole, Largo, St. Petersburg and Mango/Seffner volunteer units pitched in.

They yanked 5-inch yellow water lines from fire engines, attaching them to every hydrant circling the two-block radius. They squatted on the hot pavement and climbed into hubs extending from fire trucks to aim streams of water at the disappearing facades.

The blaze grew so hot, firefighters had to be doused with water.

"That fire was just cooking our backs," Capt. Ken Shields said. "I thought I was going to pass out."

The crews were fighting to keep the flames from spreading. In a desperate effort to stave off the advancing fire, even lawn sprinklers were turned on, moistening the grass of bordering lots.

At the brewery building across the street, the steel rail of the balcony was too hot to touch. Its windows began to explode.

* * *

Outside the Marriott hotel, Greco got into City Attorney James Palermo's black Mercedes.

Greco sat in the front passenger's seat as Palermo drove. Fernando Noriega, the city's director of business and community services, sat in back.

Like Greco, Palermo and Noriega had been deeply involved in the apartment project.

The car turned north on Channelside Drive by the Florida Aquarium. A mile away from Ybor, Greco saw the flames.

The three men drove in silence.

* * *

The 8:30 Mass was still under way at Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

A handful of people was in the church, next door to the fire, when the lights began to flicker. As the organist played the final hymn, the lights went out completely.

The priest, 78-year-old Bob Fahey, tried to reassure the congregation. As the parishioners filtered out, he told them that the lights sometimes acted up due to the nearby construction. Afterward, Fahey walked into the rectory and flipped on the light switch. Still out. He removed his robe, slipped into his civilian clothes -- sandals, brown pants, a bowling shirt and a straw hat.

Another priest rushed in.

The two of them went to the window and saw the flames rising from the construction site

"It was an inferno in a minute or two," Fahey said.

Across Palm Street, workers at the four-decade-old Oliva Tobacco Co. were getting ready for morning deliveries when their lights also flickered off.

"We just ran out and saw the fire getting heavier and heavier," said Juan Lopez, deliveryman. "It got real crazy."

All they could do was stand there and watch.

Others were mesmerized by the scene as well. Older men with caps on. A kid in a T-shirt, his blond hair in braids.

"If the wind were to blow south," said Lazaro Lopez, who has lived in the neighborhood for 26 years, "we would be saying bye-bye to the whole Ybor City right now."

Firetrucks screamed toward the scene. Flames stretched higher than the nearby U-Haul tower, which is more than 100 feet tall. Above it all, black smoke swirled.

The fire was visible from Interstate 4. One driver -- the owner of an Ybor fan shop -- worried as he exited the interstate at 21st Street.

"They are going to lose this whole complex," he told himself.

Reflections from the fire shimmered in the glass fronts of the shops and clubs along Seventh Avenue. At the edge of the flames, buildings emptied.

At the Hilton Garden Inn, a newly opened hotel just a block from the fire, guest Kevin Keller stepped out of the shower.

"It looks like rain," Keller's 5-year-old son, Sean, told him.

"What do you mean?" the boy's father asked.

Keller walked to the window. He opened the window and felt the blast of heat.

Guests and maids in gray stripe uniforms streamed from the hotel. Other people were leaving a Burger King, from the operations center of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, from a nearby post office and the Ybor City Brewing Co. Ten blocks away, children at the Philip Shore Elementary School were loaded onto eight buses and sent to Hillsborough High School.

Inside the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce, one block away from the fire, office manager Lorraine Sainz shifted into evacuation overdrive.

First, the black-and-white portrait of Vicente Martinez-Ybor, the founder of Ybor, was grabbed off the wall near the door. Then came posters and plaques and file cabinet drawers loaded with history and membership data.

Several doors down, at the brick Ybor City State Museum, strangers pitched in, helping park rangers save pieces of the city's history. They carried out an old domino table, wooden cigar presses, lectors' chairs and a bust of Jose Marti, the fighter for Cuba's independence who came to Tampa in 1891.

"Come help move things out of the museum!" a woman rushing down Ninth Avenue shouted to passers-by.

* * *

An hour and a half after the first call, it seemed that the fire was finally contained.

Capt. Shields slouched on the grill of Fire Engine 14. His white T-shirt drenched with sweat, Shields laughed with relief.

"We saved our corner," he said, meaning the southeast edge of the apartment complex. A dozen units stood erect, a mockery of what the block had been. The west end was sagging and charred.

Then Shields noticed smoke coming from a section beneath the roof of the Ybor Brewing building. He got on the radio but was assured it was just steam from all the water.

At 10:49, Shields' radio crackled.

"Uhh," he groaned. "The post office."

He turned to firefighter Tim Fultz.

"Tim, let's go!"

* * *

Up to now, the Ybor post office had been spared.

Awaiting delivery inside was the mail for all 44 of the routes the office serves in zip codes 33605 and 33619. None of the carriers had left for the day yet.

The first smoke appeared beneath the eaves of the green metal panels of the post office. Soon there were flames.

The heat from across the street had finally grown so intense that the roof of the post office had ignited. A half dozen firefighters mounted the roof, and shot streams of water under the eaves. But after a minute or so, as the flames reached higher, they retreated.

The firefighters called for reinforcements. But everyone was already busy hosing down other buildings, making sure they didn't catch fire, too.

"We couldn't get there fast enough because we were tapped out," said Wade, the fire rescue spokesman. "If the only thing that was burning was the post office, maybe we wouldn't have lost the post office but since two city blocks had burned and we had to protect in excess of six other buildings, we did what we could."

There were no sprinklers in the post office, built only 12 years ago. Federal buildings aren't required to have sprinklers, said Michael Gonzalez, lead investigator for the Tampa Fire Marshal's Office.

As the flames enveloped more and more of the post office, firefighters helped postal workers wheel out carts of mail. Yet much of the day's mail was lost.

There was some panic among the building's 83 employees when word spread that the building was doomed. They couldn't evacuate out the front door, because it led directly into the heat's epicenter. Around the back of the building, a security fence blocked their escape. Employees raced to rip down a section so they could get out. One employee was cut badly and required stitches.

The $4-million post office was destroyed. The roof collapsed into the center of the building, folding neatly within its walls.

* * *

In St. Petersburg, tourists at The Pier craned their necks, wondering what was causing the columns of smoke on the horizon.

Drivers on the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway flicked on emergency lights and stopped along the outside lanes to watch as black smoke towered over the city's tallest buildings.

At the scene, the heat was so fierce it scorched the fronds and trunks of palm trees lining Palm Avenue. On the outside of the Oliva Tobacco Co., the building's blue vinyl siding melted, leaving wax-like formations on the grass.

Packed inside the 96-year-old cigar factory were 8,000 bales of tobacco leaves, worth $10-million.

Angel Oliva III, the factory's owner, was frantic.

"Can you hose our building down?" he pleaded to a firefighter.

Firefighters soaked the building with thousands of gallons of water to cool it off. Inside, three firefighters waited in case a spark ignited the tobacco.

It never came.

"The firefighters did a hell of a job," said Scott Schaneville, an Oliva tobacco manager. Only 100 of the bales were damaged by the water.

At Ovo Cafe on Seventh Avenue, in the heart of the Ybor entertainment district, a family of five sat barefoot and in pajamas.

In Tampa on vacation, the Whigham family had raced out of the Hilton just after 9 a.m. They had been awakened by a man's shouts: "Everybody out! There's a fire!"

Rachel Whigham, 23, ran outside the hotel, then raced back in. She had forgotten her suitcase.

"Oh, my Gap clothes," her sister, Yolanda Whigham, 39, teased her later.

Rachel Whigham smiled shyly. "It's embarrassing."

They sipped water and orange juice while they waited for their waffles at Ovo.

"We're supposed to be at Adventure Island right now," said Cheryll Whigham, 37.

Her fiance, Bruce Logue, chuckled. "We're on Adventure Island."

* * *

As the smoke began to clear in the afternoon, parts of six city blocks lay in ruins.

All that remained of the Park at Ybor City apartments were charred concrete slabs, the remnants of the two parking buildings, and the wooden skeleton of the complex's southeast corner.

The 1,200-degree fire melted the globes of the old-fashioned lamplights along 12th Avenue. It left the macadam in the streets cracked and flaking. Strands of steel cable had been turned into little silver puddles that looked like dimes tossed in the gutter.

Three firefighters had been taken to Tampa General Hospital with minor injuries. Another suffered chest pains and was listed in serious condition late Friday. Many firefighters at the scene had been given oxygen, liquids and told to rest because of heat exhaustion.

The investigation into the fire was already under way. The forklift had been rented from a Sarasota firm and was being operated by a framing contractor from Texas.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration indicated that the forklift's operator might have been violating federal rules in working so close to power lines.

OSHA rules require operators of heavy equipment to stay at least 10 feet away from power lines. If a heavy equipment operator wants to work any closer, OSHA says, he has to contact the power company to request the power lines be insulated or power re-routed to eliminate any hazard.

A TECO spokeswoman said no such request had been made before Friday's accident.

A worker died in another heavy equipment accident at the same construction site last month. A crane dropped a load of 25-foot-long steel beams and killed Robert Padilla, 32, a construction supervisor. OSHA is still investigating Padilla's death.

Jose Chirino, the driver of the forklift that sparked the fire, was still at the scene hours later. Records show that Chirino was convicted of DUI earlier this year and had his driver's license revoked for six months. Department of Motor Vehicle officials noted, however, that Florida law does not require a license to operate a forklift on private property.

Friday afternoon, Chirino sat uneasily on a curb in the parking lot of the Ybor City Brewing Co. He wore a red Adidas hat and stared into the distance. His family had come to the scene. They kept reporters away. A young boy wrapped his arms around Chirino's neck.

* * *

At sunset, the stretch limos and sports coupes began pouring into Ybor, jockeying for the best parking spaces. A band at Frankie's Patio banged out Sympathy for the Devil. People strolled along Seventh Avenue, enjoying the scene before it got crowded.

Just four blocks away, the fire still smoldered. As a breeze swept over the rubble, patches of flame flared here and there.

Mayor Greco was already talking about new beginnings. Camden Development, he said, has pledged to rebuild the project.

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