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Report details snags in fighting fire

Even without the problems, firefighters could not have saved the Park at Ybor City apartments May 19, an official says.

By STEVE HUETTEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 13, 2000


TAMPA -- Two fire hydrants were dry. Off-duty firefighters should have been called in faster. Some portable radio batteries died.

But the commander of Tampa Fire Rescue's battle against the huge Ybor City blaze last month said problems identified in an internal report released Monday didn't seriously hamstring firefighters or change the outcome of the fire.

"Nothing's going to be like the drill," said Division Chief J.D. Taylor, who oversaw the efforts of nearly 140 fire personnel at the scene and wrote part of the report. "There will always be something that hampers you . . . especially with a fire of that magnitude."

The May 19 fire, started when a forklift operator hit a power line, destroyed a half-finished, 454-unit apartment complex and neighboring post office.

Firefighters quickly wrote off the Park at Ybor City apartments while flames shooting as high as 100 feet in the air engulfed the wood framing, Taylor said.

Instead, he said, they concentrated on saving five nearby buildings: the post office, Tampa Bay Brewing Co., a U-Haul warehouse, Oliva Tobacco Co. and Our Lady of Perpetual Hope church.

Two hydrants near the church were dry because they were connected to a huge main that lost pressure due to the volume of water used to fight the blaze, the city's water director explained. Firefighters had to run hoses to more distant hydrants. But it was only a few minutes before they were dousing the church, Taylor said.

The post office posed a tougher challenge.

Its tin roof radiated heat to insulation and wooden trusses beneath, Taylor said. The ends of rafters carried heat from the building's eaves inside.

Some firefighters hosed down the roof and walls, while others searched inside for signs of fire. They thought the building was safe until flames shot from the roof, likely the result of insulation igniting from the heat of the roof, Taylor said.

The first fire crews were exhausted, he said, and there weren't enough off-duty firefighters to take over tearing out pieces of ceiling to spot trouble.

"If we had more fresh folks, they could have maintained more vigilance," Taylor said. "They've got a lot of ripping and tearing to do."

Secretaries at fire headquarters tried to reach off-duty firefighters at home. Television stations ran messages urging them to report in, said Capt. Bill Wade, fire department spokesman.

Eventually, some 30 off-duty firefighters showed up, and twice as many went to stations to fill in for those in Ybor.

But the system of calling in off-duty firefighters -- officers with call lists dialing from home stations -- worked better for emergencies with advance notice such as hurricane warnings, said Taylor and Wade.

The report also identified equipment glitches.

Some portable radios went dead after around 90 minutes. Fire officials have known about the problem and are in the process of obtaining batteries with longer use between charges, Taylor said.

Two reserve pumpers overheated, and one wouldn't switch from pumping to driving gear after the blaze, he said. But overall, Taylor said, none of the problems warranted major changes in department policies or procedures.

- Steve Huettel can be reached at (813) 226-3384, or at huettel@sptimes.com.

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