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Letters thought lost in fire delivered


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 8, 2000

TAMPA -- Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor . . . raging inferno?

After one of the largest fires in Tampa's history took the Ybor City post office down in flames May 19, most customers of the now charred building accepted the loss of that day's mail as an act of God, nature, fate or just plain old bad luck.

"I've already called all these different agencies to explain what happened and ask them to resend my bills or statements or whatever," said Rebecca Jay, who had a post office box at the Ybor post office and now has one in a makeshift post office, a doublewide mobile home in the parking lot.

Still, Jay wondered what else had been in her box that day. On Wednesday afternoon, she let out a delighted squeal when she pulled U.S. Postal Service plastic baggies full of slightly cooked letters from her box. There were bills, of course, but also irreplaceable things such as a "just because" card from her grandmother she hadn't expected and her voter registration card.

The salvaged mail was the result of weeks of work by Sierra Construction, the company employed to get the post office back in working order after the fire.

Sierra had the makeshift office open for business just six days after the fire.

Most of the mail for the office's 44 routes and 2,500 post office boxes burned with the fire. But some of it wasn't a total loss.

"Personally, I didn't quite realize how important the mail was to the post office," said Sierra spokesman Ray Shaw. "It was the most important thing to them. Our first task was to find the mail."

Workers separated each piece and used the sun and large fans to dry the mail out.

"It's a new technology," Shaw joked.

Then every letter was carefully cleaned with chemical sponges to remove soot. If an address was legible, the letter was placed in a plastic bag with an apology letter from the Postal Service. Shaw said Sierra was able to save about 16,000 pieces of mail. Brenda Fernandez, of Tom P. Martino Mortgages on Seventh Avenue, is just thankful for what they did save. Wednesday afternoon she held an armful of plastic baggies with mortgage payments and other official documents for their clients. After watching the post office burn that Friday, she thought her company would have to spend weeks reissuing what was lost.

"We could see the post office smoking from our office, and I just thought, "Oh my God,' " Fernandez said. "Because that morning, of course, I didn't pick up the mail."

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