TARPON SPRINGS — A deafening bomb exploded on the roof of a vacant building early Sunday, shattering downtown windows, showering patrons of a nightclub below with debris and blowing doors off their hinges.
Tarpon Springs police tied the blast to similar explosions in past years marking the celebration of Greek Orthodox Easter, but will likely rank it among the most devastating. Sunday's explosion coincided with a midnight resurrection service taking place at a nearby cathedral.
At the Zone Lounge at 121 E Tarpon Ave., more than 225 customers raced for cover. Some were bleeding. One of the bar's owners, Deanna Dunbar, briefly lost her hearing.
The blast detonated at 12:12 a.m., authorities say, on the roof of an empty building between the Zone Lounge and second-floor apartments above the Artists' Faire Gallery, 111 E Tarpon Ave.
"I have been here 25 years, and this is one of the loudest explosions I have heard around this event," said Tarpon Springs police Capt. Barbara Templeton.
Emergency responders including police, firefighters, bomb technicians and forensic teams rushed to the scene. Templeton said at least two women were treated for cuts, but she was not aware of anyone being hospitalized.
A backpack on Hibiscus Street was found to contain materials that could be used to set off a bomb, Templeton said, but police have not arrested anyone for the blast. The Tarpon Springs Police Department is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to an identification and arrest.
Kyle Larson was on the sidewalk across from the Zone Lounge when he saw a "big white flash."
"It was like lightning, almost," said Larson, 42. The explosion came milliseconds later. "It wasn't like, 'kabam.' It was like, boom … ba-BOOM. It was like a two-stage concussion."
Chris Seslar, a partner in the Zone, was on the sidewalk outside when he heard what sounded like a bottle rocket followed by a massive blast. He raced inside and toward a rear patio, where many patrons with bicycles had gathered, part of a charity event for autism.
Later Sunday, Seslar, 48, stood in his empty lounge and pointed to the huge space that a day before had contained doors. "This whole door was blown wide open," he said. "There was glass everywhere."
The same bomb left a 6-foot-wide depression, destroyed a shed on the roof of the vacant building and rained glass and asphalt on frightened customers below.
"You've got people bleeding," Seslar said. "You've got people running this way, running that way. Nobody knows if there's a secondary bomb or anything like that."
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Travis Merriex, who lives in the second-floor apartments, topped off a quiet Saturday night by walking his dog.
A little before midnight, he fell asleep on the couch. The explosion pushed the couch from the wall and threw him to the floor.
"I didn't know what to do," said Merriex, 21. "I thought the world was coming to an end."
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As investigators from several agencies worked the scene, unrelated bits of chaos broke out on their own. Someone set a fire on the asphalt of Ring Avenue, with flames estimated at 3 feet high.
And an unidentified man was accused of stealing an ambulance. Authorities tracked the ambulance through its GPS device to a nearby water treatment facility. Police found a man inside the facility they say advanced toward them with objects clenched in both hands.
Police Tasered the man, thought to be at least 30 years old, Templeton said. The objects in his hands turned out to be a flashlight and a potato.
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The Zone Lounge had closed its second-floor bar Saturday because of the charity event and the start of renovations. That floor has two restrooms, both nearly always in use, said Seslar.
Those restroom windows overlook the vacant rooftop where the bomb went off. "The bomb technician said, if anyone had been in those restrooms, they would be dead," Templeton said.
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The tradition of setting off explosives around Easter migrated here in the Greek community from the islands in the Aegean Sea, when celebrants threw dynamite over cliffs to mark the resurrection. But in recent years in Tarpon Springs, such celebrations have become increasingly destructive, authorities fear.
In 2005, a "Greek bomb" demolished windows of two restaurants on Dodecanese Boulevard. In 2010, someone remotely set off 11 minutes' worth of illegal fireworks on the roof of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral during its Easter Eve service.
"When a tradition threatens life and property," Templeton said, "it's time to rethink the tradition."
Well-wishers called Seslar all day, asking how to help.
"If I have to tell you what I need," he said, "the word I want to get out to everybody is, 'Stop making bombs.' "