TAMPA — By the time smoke detectors began to chirp inside Meralys Velazquez's apartment building the morning of May 15, the families inside had only seconds to get out alive.
It was nearly 3:30 a.m. and connected alarms were going off in each of the eight units inside Velazquez's building at the Captiva Club Apartment complex in Town 'N Country. Within seconds, the building's occupants spilled out into the parking lot in their pajamas, watching their home go up in flames.
But not Velazquez and her two young children, ages 10 and 5. They died in the blaze after she ran back to her bedroom to try and save them.
While theirs were the first fire-related deaths at the complex, this was not the first time a fire has destroyed an entire building in Captiva Club within minutes, records show.
In fact, it was the third such fire in four years, and while their ultimate cause remains "undetermined," all share striking similarities.
Hillsborough County Fire Rescue, Sheriff’s deputies and the state Fire Marshall are still investigating what caused Wednesday’s blaze, but they have confirmed that it originated in an upstairs apartment. Once flames poked through the apartment's roof, the fire quickly consumed the long, airy attic that spans the building, fueled by the structure's wooden beams, said Eric Seidel, a spokesman for Hillsborough County Fire Rescue.
First-responders noted the same set of circumstances in two other significant fires at Captiva Club in recent years, one in October 2015 and another in April 2018. While no one was seriously injured in those fires, both completely consumed entire apartment buildings, causing extensive damage that made it impossible for investigators to determine their cause.
As in Wednesday’s fire, both blazes are believed to have started in second-story apartments on the north end of each building, both labeled “Apartment 3”.
According to medical examiner records, Apartment 3 of 4541 Castaway Drive was where Meralys Velazquez and her children lived and died.
Fire investigation reports show that in both the 2015 and 2018 fires, investigators managed to trace the origins to the south corner of a small, screened patio attached to the master bedroom in each apartment. In the 2015 report, an investigator noted that “the majority of the wiring appeared to be overhead and in the wall of the east and south wall/ceiling of the patio."
Investigators looked into possible electrical malfunctions in both cases, but ultimately ruled the cause of the fires undetermined. As with this month's fatal fire, there were too many other scenarios to consider.
In the 2015 fire, the man living in apartment 3 told investigators he had smoked a cigar on the patio the night before, snuffing it out in a flower pot before he went to bed.
Meralyz Velazquez also smoked, and often burned candles on the patio, investigators said. And while cigarettes weren't a factor in the 2018 fire, the residents of apartment 3 said there were a number of electrical devices, including a treadmill and an electric power-lift recliner, stored on the patio where the fire broke out.
"In that fire, a neighbor who lived a the building across the yard said he was on his back patio that night when he heard a loud "pop" and turned to see a large blaze spread quickly from the south end of the upstairs patio to the north, the reports said.
Velazquez's apartment building, as well as the surrounding structures, passed a fire inspection last September without any code violations, the county said. An investigators’ report on the building noted that “all smoke alarms are electric, interconnected inside and outside the bedrooms.”
But in the past decade, Hillsborough County Code Enforcement has investigated 29 complaints filed against Captiva Club Apartments, county records show.
Many came from tenants who said the property’s management team were slow or unresponsive to their repeated requests for maintenance work. Most of those complaints described termite infestations, bed bugs, cockroaches and chronic plumbing issues, often involving raw sewage spilling from toilets and bathtub drains.
In some cases, complaints about termite-ridden porches or moldy air conditioners led county code inspectors to discover other safety issues that had gone overlooked. Captiva Club management received at least two code enforcement violations for faulty electrical outlets in apartment bathrooms, one in June 2018 and the other in October 2016. Inspectors found that outlets were installed without proper “grounding” to stop an electrical surge from starting a fire or causing electric shock.
According to the Hillsborough County Property Appraisers’ Office, all but one of the 31 apartment buildings inside the Captiva Club Apartments complex were built in the mid-1970s and were not required to have sprinklers.
A Hillsborough County spokesman said the Fire Marshall's investigation into last week's fire could be completed by next week.
Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.