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Blaze rips through Ybor City landmark

The former home of the Blue Ribbon Supermarket was to have been turned into a nightclub with a European flavor.

[Times photo: Fred Victorin]
Firefighters got upwind of the blaze in the old supermarket and tried to keep it from spreading to other buildings in the area.

By KATHRYN WEXLER, LINDA GIBSON, SARAH SCHWEITZER, WAYNE WASHINGTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 12, 2000


TAMPA -- Just after 4 p.m. Friday, architect Ken Kroger was on the phone to Austria, giving good news to the developer of a new Ybor City dance club. Building permits were clinched, he said, and they had closed on the $3.5-million renovation loan.

Power had been restored to the historic, brick building just half an hour earlier.

Then someone told him the building was on fire.

Sprinting two blocks from his office to the old Blue Ribbon Supermarket building on Seventh Avenue, Kroger saw the flames. He got developer Roland Penetsdorfer back on the phone.

"He thought it was a joke," Kroger said. "They're just in shock."

photo
[Times photo: Fraser Hale]
Despite their efforts, firefighters could do little to save the 79-year-old structure on Ybor City's Seventh Avenue.
The fire that swept through the three-story building at 15th Street left nothing but a charred shell. But unlike the massive fire May 19 a few blocks east that destroyed a post office and an apartment complex under construction, firefighters were able to keep this blaze from spreading.

Still, by the time firefighters were able to get the fire under control at 5:30, the normally bustling Seventh Avenue looked like a war zone, with fat chunks of the brick facade, snapped palm trees and blackened water rushing down the gutters.

Jack Willhoite, a software designer who works a few doors down, stood transfixed by the destruction, saddened by history going up in smoke.

"This has been a part of Ybor for a long, long time," he said.

The building, constructed in 1921, was once a post office. Since 1925, it had been a supermarket. Its doors closed June 16, and only old fixtures and unusable refrigeration parts were left inside, said Eli Bobo, whose family bought the property in 1967 and sold it to the Austrian developers.

But still, what a loss, Bobo said. While the family watched the blaze, Salha Bobo, the family's 93-year-old matriarch, couldn't keep from crying.

"I said, "Mama, what are you crying about? We don't own it anymore.' "

At 4:19, someone dialed 911 to say the Blue Ribbon Supermarket was burning. The first engine, from the downtown station on Zack Street, pulled up three minutes later.

But by then, the blaze was going strong. Firefighters made their way inside, and fanned out with hoses.

The wind swept the smoke eastward, turning Seventh Avenue into a corridor of black, cyclonic plumes that forced people to exit the back doors of businesses that line the street.

photo
[Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]
The huge plumes of smoke rising from Ybor City were visible throughout most of Tampa on Friday evening.
As flames licked the roof on the southeast corner, the tops of the walls came crashing down, sending spectators scurrying for cover.

Power lines exploded. The heat forced bystanders farther and farther away.

Firefighters fought the blaze from above, shooting water from ladders mounted on fire engines. Still, the flames edged along the roof to the west, consuming the old bricks and mortar in its wake.

After a half-hour, firefighters realized they couldn't save the building and pulled out. The focus then became to keep the flames from jumping to other building, Jones said.

During the massive May 19th fire a few blocks east, flames leapt across Palm Avenue and gutted a post office. Fire officials said then they didn't have the manpower to guard every front of the fire, and couldn't get to the post office quickly enough.

This time, Botto said, firefighters mounted a heavy defense on the east side of 15th Street, just upwind of the blaze. Firefighters knelt near the flames, continually dousing bordering facades, even as wires and bricks came crashing down nearby.

The only injury was to a firefighter who cut his thumb and needed stitches.

Investigators spoke to the first firefighters inside the building to try to figure out what may have sparked the blaze. Assistant Fire Marshal Todd Spear said they wanted to know what work TECO had done inside.

"That's one of the the things we'll be asking TECO," he said.

Laura Plumb, a TECO spokeswoman, said the company restored power at 3:30 p.m. at the request of the developer, Penetsdorfer. Property owners are responsible for making sure that electrical wiring and equipment inside is safe before power is turned on, Plumb said. "As far as our responsibility, it ends at the meter."

Once the fire started, TECO cut off power as a safety precaution to about 700 customers in an area extending from Interstate 4 to Fifth Avenue and 10th Street to 22nd Street, the core of Ybor's commercial district. Power was retored to nearly all customers by 6:30 p.m.

Mayor Dick Greco, who cried as he watched the May 19 fire, didn't seem particularly fazed by the fire Friday. He had taken the day off and was hanging pictures in his new Harbour Island home when he got the ominous call from a fire official. He sped off in his city-issued Lincoln Town Car toward the smoke rising above Ybor City, just as he had a few months back.

"Everything burns," he shrugged, standing unshaven in a soiled yellow polo shirt and shorts. Then, seeing Kroger in the crowd, he put one arm around the architect's shoulders and leaned toward him with a smile.

"You'll still build it, right?"

Kroger, the president of Architectural Designs, didn't say much. But when reached a few hours later, he said, "we're pretty optimistic about moving forward with it."

The Night Shift was to have a restaurant with a Viennese-influenced menu, imported beer and a "European atmosphere," said Kroger. The club would have been the biggest in Ybor, with a capacity of 2,400.

Kroger said the Penetsdorfer Corp. has five other nightclubs in Austria and Germany. The company hoped to install huge television screens projecting live images from those clubs into the Ybor City locale via satellite in a sort of virtual global party.

By the end of the day, workers had knocked the last remnants to the ground. Fire crews sprayed piles of rubble to ensure nothing was left smoldering.

Some streets remained to closed to traffic.

"It was an institution," said Keith Ward, 30, a Tampa native who works for Chase Manhattan Bank.

But beyond its status as a distinctive landmark, the Blue Ribbon grocery store was a community staple, a place that offered affordable goods to residents who had shopped its isles for generations.

"The prices were reasonable, so it was good for poor people," said 39-year-old Doraine Longstreet, shaking her head in disbelief.

- Staff writers Steve Huettel and Jeff Testerman contributed to this report.

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