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Saddlebrook fire cause linked to overheated duct

Business continues as usual at the resort with shuffling of events. Officials are unsure when repairs will be finished.

By COLLEEN JENKINS

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 14, 2001


WESLEY CHAPEL -- A day after fire caused $1-million in damages to the upscale Saddlebrook Resort, resort officials said business was running with minimal interruption.

An overheated duct in the two-story conference center building burned the roof and caused water and smoke damage in the Royal Palm Ballroom, sales and marketing offices and meeting rooms below, but officials merely had to juggle guests and employees around Wednesday, said spokesman Jim Frankowiak.

"We're able to accommodate the groups that we have," he said Wednesday afternoon, noting that this is the resort's slow season. "We're just moving forward."

For Chip Wichmanowski, the fire actually seemed to make things better. The second-floor meeting rooms where the president-elect of the Consortium of Florida Education Foundations was scheduled to host the group's annual meeting at the resort Wednesday were damaged by the fire, forcing the meeting to be relocated.

They ended up with a big room where they could both meet and have lunch instead of splitting up between two rooms as they had originally planned.

"We're probably getting a better deal," Wichmanowski said. "We have not lost a thing because of this."

On Wednesday afternoon, Pasco County Fire Marshal Larry Whitten said the fire stemmed from the heat of a kitchen oven where employees had been baking rolls and cakes for an upcoming banquet. Heat from the oven flowed into duct work, which led investigators to the building's roof, where they found a malfunctioning fan. Without the fan to pull hot air from the duct, the heat had been trapped inside.

The wood frame around the duct work and the wooden shingles on the roof caused the fire to spread quickly, Whitten said.

"As dry as it is, it doesn't take a lot to get going," he said.

The layers of metal and concrete on the roof helped contain the fire, though the dense construction made it impossible for firefighters to puncture the roof and fight the fire from above, said Pasco County Fire Rescue Chief Tony Lopinto.

Instead, fire crews from Pasco and Hillsborough counties and Zephyrhills had to surround the burning corner of the building from three sides to get it under control. That took about two hours.

Coordinating the three agencies presented no problems, said Lopinto, but the heat was another story. Although no Saddlebrook employees or guests were hurt in the fire at the 480-acre development on State Road 54, three Pasco firefighters suffered minor injuries, including heat exhaustion.

"It was very hot, tedious work," Lopinto said. "It was a challenge."

Both Lopinto and Whitten said there was no truth behind reports of problems with the resort's privately-maintained fire hydrants. Trying to help firefighters, Saddlebrook grounds employees attempted to hook up small hoses to two hydrants behind the building. One of the hydrants didn't have enough pressure as a result of the three hydrants already in use by firefighters.

Another hydrant right next to that one turned out to be disconnected and had never been removed when the newer one was installed. Lopinto said this "caused a little bit of confusion," but did not affect any of the main lines working the fire.

Another hydrant, farther away from the building, couldn't be used after employees ripped out its cap and threads for a hose when they opened it without the proper tools.

But Whitten, who left the fire scene at 2 a.m. Wednesday, said firefighters never had any intentions of using that hydrant.

"The hydrant in question had no bearing on our fire attack," he said."The hydrant didn't affect us fighting the fire in any possible way."

The water damage inside the resort building resulted mostly from the sprinkler system. Frankowiak said some offices will be moved to Saddlebrook Academy, the private high school in the development. The school is not currently in session.

The corner of the roof where the fire began is destroyed. Frankowiak does not know how long repairs will take but expects things to continue running smoothly in the interim.

"All in all, it could have been much worse," he said.

- Colleen Jenkins can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6232 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6232.

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