All six employees got out of the store just before the ceiling came crashing down in the middle of the showroom.
By BRIAN MOORE
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 28, 2001
CLEARWATER -- It was just after 4 p.m. Friday when Marvin Jackson first saw the trickle of water falling from the ceiling at Buddy Bi-Rite rent-to-own furniture and appliance store. A co-worker put a bucket on the floor to catch the water, and Jackson kept working.
Minutes later, Jackson heard a crackle overhead. He looked up and saw the ceiling bow down, then move back in place. It looked like a belly, he said, breathing in and out. He heard another crack, and another.
"We were looking at it bowing down, and then we hollered to our district manager, "Yo man! The roof's falling in!' " Jackson said. "Everybody just took off and started running. By the time we hit the back door, we heard a whole big, "Boom!' "
At 4:13 p.m., it was bye-bye Buddy Bi-Rite. All six employees got out of the store at 1641 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd. just before the ceiling came crashing down in the middle of the showroom.
"Everything was on the ground," Jackson said. "If we were in there about three more seconds, it would have been on us."
No customers were in the store at the time, and no one was hurt. But water poured in from the roof, and glass walls on the front end of the building tilted outward as if they could no longer bear to stand.
An orange overhang on the exterior was bent out of shape, and aluminum siding dangled underneath.
Pete Huffman, assistant operations chief for Clearwater Fire and Rescue, said there was simply too much water sitting on the store's flat roof. Water from rains over the last few days hadn't completely drained, and an afternoon shower Friday was enough to collapse the roof at the building's center.
"Flat-roof construction does have an inherent scenario of holding more water . . . than a pitched roof that's able to shed water," Huffman said. "We had a lot of rain in a short period of time."
Severe structural damage could keep the store closed for months, Huffman said. Bi-Rite workers met in the parking lot behind the building as light rain fell just after the collapse.
Division manager Lee Duvall said the company will pitch a tent in the parking lot and work from there today. One employee was sent as a rover to scout out vacant buildings in Clearwater, and Duvall hopes to reopen for business at a temporary location on Monday.
If the roof was going to collapse, it did so at a good time. Employees said business Friday was average, with no more than four or five customers at a time in the store throughout the day. But within 10 minutes after the accident, about a half-dozen people showed up to pay their bills.
"We were lucky," assistant manager Maurice Wilson said. "The ceiling started bowing. It started shaking, and that's all I had to see. I was out the door. The whole business shook like it was an earthquake."