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    Blaze consumes hotel on beach

    Guests flee into the night as the fire grows. No one is seriously hurt, but damage is about $2-million.

    [Times photo: Jim Damaske]
    The early morning fire extensively damaged the Ramada Limited.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- Elena Bespalova woke up in her room at the Ramada Limited in Clearwater Beach about 3:30 a.m. Wednesday and noticed an orange light spilling into her room.

    She looked out her window and saw flames leaping into the air from the other side of a wooden fence separating the Ramada from the Islander Motel Apartments, 692 Bayway Blvd.

    Frantic, the 34-year-old Vermont resident ordered her daughters, ages 6 and 11, to get up. She ran next door in her nightgown and banged on the windows of the room, waking up her friends, the Vinogradsky family of Ohio.

    Both families ran around the Ramada, alerting about 20 people in eight rooms to leave.

    About 15 minutes later, witnesses said, the fire jumped across the fence from the Islander, and most of the red-tiled roof of the two-story Ramada Limited was blazing, as disoriented motel guests watched from across the street.

    No hotel guests were injured. But two Clearwater firefighters sustained minor injuries, including Steve Smith, who hurt his neck when a ceiling collapsed on him in one of the Ramada's rooms, said Assistant Fire Chief Charlie Flowers.

    Clearwater fire officials estimated that the fire caused $2-million in damage, most of it at the Ramada. City inspectors declared the Ramada, which had only a skeletal roof left in many areas, uninhabitable. A wall of the Islander was scorched, but the fire didn't spread through that hotel.

    Hotel guests lost clothes and luggage. American Red Cross workers handed out vouchers for them to buy an outfit so they would have something to wear while they revised their vacations.

    Some people tried to salvage their belongings. A thick novel, shoes and soaked travelers checks could be seen lying on balconies and railings at a nearby hotel, where displaced Ramada guests went.

    "There are things in life that happen and you can't change much after it happens," said Boris Vinogradsky, 37. "You try to make the best of it."

    Vinogradsky's 16-year-old daughter, Tanya, stood nearby, holding a couple of wet hats and soot-covered bottles of sunscreen. After his family cleaned up, Vinogradsky said, they were headed to Orlando.

    The cause of the fire had not been determined Wednesday afternoon.

    The blaze began at the Islander's fence, in the area of several shelves that were used to store liquid propane as well as at least one container of gasoline, said Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Randy Hinder. The area was used by boaters who dock beside the hotel, not hotel occupants, Hinder said.

    It had not been determined whether storing the materials there violated any codes. Islander managers told fire inspectors that they did not know anything flammable was stored there, Hinder said.

    The Ramada had a good record of complying with city rules, fire inspector Duane Anderson said. But the Islander has had safety violations, such as not having smoke detectors in the proper places in rooms in 1998.

    Islander managers declined to comment.

    Witnesses reported hearing two pops as the blaze erupted, Hinder said.

    After Bespalova woke him, Vinogradsky said, he ran outside and grabbed a water hose on the dock behind the Ramada and tried to fight the fire. But the flames were too intense.

    "It was taller than me already," he said. "I don't think it was possible."

    After city firefighters arrived, some found themselves with gasoline running around their feet from the Islander's storage area.

    Both the Islander and an adjacent Howard Johnson were evacuated during the fire, which was put out in two hours. Engines from four cities responded, Flowers said.

    Ramesh Patel, one of the Ramada's owners, said he regretted the problems for his guests. He handed out keys to rooms at the Clearwater Beach Resort, another hotel that he owns, so they would have a place to stay. Patel said he anticipates his insurance company will cover the damage to the Ramada.

    "What you see is a scrap," he said. "This year is done."

    Some damage might have been avoided, suggested Anderson, the city's fire inspector. The Ramada, built in 1957, lacked walls that are now required to stop the spread of fire through the crawl space in a roof, he said. Also, the Ramada lacked a sprinkler system -- but that is not required in small motels.

    "But if there had been a sprinkler system, we probably wouldn't have lost the top floor," Hinder said. "I think that's a valid point."

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