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

Published October 4 2017
Updated October 6 2017

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.


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.