Tuesday, November 20, 2018
News Roundup

Fire Marshal: Lee Elementary fire was accidental and electrical, with storm damage a contributing factor

TAMPA — The Sept. 12 fire at historic Lee Elementary School was caused by an electrical failure, with wind and rain from Hurricane Irma likely contributors.

That’s the conclusion of Tampa Fire Rescue, which announced Wednesday that the fire had been ruled accidental and the case was closed.

In doing so, officials doused suspicions that the fire might have been set by someone angry that the 111-year-old school was renamed in 1943 for Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Investigators were unable to pinpoint the precise cause of the electrical malfunction, as the disaster did so much damage. But, they wrote in their report, "it is believed that the fairly extensive water damage sustained by the structure during Hurricane Irma likely was a factor."

READ THE REPORT: ‘These findings are supportive of an accidental fire’

The fire, which displaced 329 students and 49 employees, capped a week of anxiety before, during and after the storm. Like much of Hillsborough, the school’s Tampa Heights neighborhood was without electricity for nearly two days.

Neighbors said they had just regained their power late in the day when they heard a buzzing or humming sound. Firefighters arrived to find smoke and flames shooting from two historic cupolas on the roof. They were still pouring water through the collapsed roof the next morning. The school district mobilized to relocate the students and staff to nearby Lockhart Elementary.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE:

Flames consume Robert E. Lee Elementary in Tampa Heights (w/video)

Staff and volunteers work to create a ‘first day of school’ for Lee Elementary’s displaced students

In their investigation, the fire department interviewed nine district employees including Beverly Smith, the principal.

Like other principals, Smith had been asked the day before the fire to inspect the school and see if it could receive students later in the week. She noticed "heavy amounts of water damage and damage to ceiling tiles in several areas," the report said.

Workers nailed shingles to the roof on the following day. Two custodians tried to clean up water damage in the cafeteria.

No one was in the school when the fire began. An intrusion alarm was reported at a security office. But, because it concerned two doors that were locked and at opposite sides of the building, investigators determined it was a false alarms.

Investigators reached their conclusion about the electrical failure and storm damage after considering several factors.

First, a fire panel showed the sequence of alarms that went off the night of the fire. The first one was a heat detector in the attic, which was made of "heavy timber construction" and held the building's wiring. From there, the alarms progressed downward, to the second floor and then ground floor elevator lobbies and cafeteria.

"The built-in ventilation provided by the cupolas, as well as the age and nature of the structural materials in the attic likely contributed to the rapid growth and spread of the fire," the report said.

The role the storm played is less clear. But investigators and school district officials pointed to the heavy hurricane winds. "Lee is one of our district’s oldest schools, and it was not rated to withstand a hurricane," said a statement from the district.

Water intrusion might have happened around the cupolas and compromised the wires, officials said. High winds might have whipped cables back and forth.

The district said it has no reason, based on inspections or maintenance requests, to think anything was wrong with the wiring before the storm.

And, although most of its schools do not have sprinklers, the district named several methods it uses to ensure fire safety, "including monitored smoke detectors, audible alarms, flashing beacons, fire extinguishers, emergency lighting, and fire doors." In addition, fire drills happen every month.

There is no word yet on whether the district will rebuild the school — and, if so, what it will be named.

Officials said they must first work with their insurance company and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assess damages and determine their options.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 810-5068 [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.

Comments
Rays DFA C.J. Cron in adding 5 prospects to roster

Rays DFA C.J. Cron in adding 5 prospects to roster

Leading home run hitter is headed to waiver wire; Drake and Milner also DFA'd, Mujica outrighted. Prospects Bird, Burke, Gibaut, McCarthy and Sanchez added.
Updated: 3 hours ago
For a story, memorabilia appraiser Michael Osacky will give you a price

For a story, memorabilia appraiser Michael Osacky will give you a price

BRANDON — When Michael Osacky asked the man to show him the Dan Marino autograph, Osacky didn't expect him to disrobe.Osacky, a sports memorabilia appraiser, watched as the man stood up, removed his shirt and turned around to reveal a Marino au...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Bucs offensive linemen continue a Thanksgiving tradition

Bucs offensive linemen continue a Thanksgiving tradition

TAMPA – An event that began back in 2007 with the Buccaneers offensive linemen giving Thanksgiving dinners away to a few hundred Tampa Bay area families in need has not only more than tripled in the number of families it's able to feed every ho...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Former Bucs John Lynch and Ronde Barber among Hall of Fame semifinalists

Former Bucs John Lynch and Ronde Barber among Hall of Fame semifinalists

John Lynch has been a finalist the past six years. This is Ronde Barber's third year as a semifinalist.
Updated: 5 hours ago
Florida Gators’ New Year’s Six bowl chances look better in latest College Football Playoff rankings

Florida Gators’ New Year’s Six bowl chances look better in latest College Football Playoff rankings

UF cracks the top 12, and UCF has the highest ranking ever by a Group of Five team.
Updated: 6 hours ago
Bucs place tight end O.J. Howard on injured reserve with foot, ankle injuries

Bucs place tight end O.J. Howard on injured reserve with foot, ankle injuries

O.J. Howard sustained separate injuries on the same play during the Bucs' 38-35 loss to the Giants Sunday in East Rutherford, N.J.
Updated: 6 hours ago
Former Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey leaves Cubs for “personal reasons”

Former Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey leaves Cubs for “personal reasons”

Hickey had spent 11 years with Rays before leaving following 2017 season.
Updated: 6 hours ago
Bucs-49ers is a matchup of turnover-margin futility

Bucs-49ers is a matchup of turnover-margin futility

It might be fitting that the game between the NFL's two most giving teams will be played on Thanksgiving weekend.
Updated: 7 hours ago

Wednesday’s letters: Start at precincts to restore trust in our voting system

Here are Wednesday’s letters to the editor
Updated: 8 hours ago

Hernando school board: Longtime educator Duval takes over as chairperson

Susan Duval, who spent many years as a principal in Hernando County, was recently reelected to the board.
Updated: 8 hours ago