LEALMAN — A large blaze that broke out in an apartment complex before dawn and destroyed an entire building Friday revived questions about Lealman's fire hydrant system.
Town Apartments North, 5855 18th St. N, a retirement community just east of Interstate 275, was also the scene of a notorious fire in 2003. Residents in the area have complained before about a lack of hydrants and the speed at which firefighters extinguish fires.
Hours after the fire was reported at 5:50 a.m., firefighters were on a ladder truck still dousing a large hole in the roof of the complex's Florian Building. Officials said 20 residents were evacuated, many to the clubhouse. Of the 20 units in the building, 18 were affected. Seven of the units are rented by people who live out of state, so they were empty.
The complex does not have sprinklers, residents said. Firewalls were built after a 2003 fire destroyed the 54-unit, three-story Nautilus building at the complex. Residents then were left homeless and facing financial ruin because they were under- or uninsured. That June 21 fire began in the kitchen of a second-floor apartment.
The cause of Friday's fire is still being investigated, but detectives say the fire was not intentionally set. Like the fire six years ago, preliminary evidence suggests Friday's blaze began in the kitchen of a second-floor unit. The owner lives in Canada, and the unit was unoccupied.
In the 2003 blaze, firefighters were hampered by too few hydrants. The closest was about 800 feet from the burning building. The lack of hydrants prompted a debate between Pinellas County, which oversees fire service in the area, and St. Petersburg, which supplies the water. The county said at least 160 hydrants were needed in Lealman and that St. Petersburg was responsible for installing them. St. Petersburg said it was the county's duty.
The county ultimately agreed to pay St. Petersburg to install 44 hydrants.
Three hydrants were installed near the complex, Lealman Fire Rescue Capt. Larry Thompson said, but residents on Friday expressed concern that they were inadequate.
Resident Bill Walker, who said he was inside the Nautilus building when it caught fire in 2003, said that despite added hydrants, "people around here have always said we are low on fire hydrants. It's the power that be. It costs a lot of money."
On Friday, firefighters ran hoses from a hydrant several hundred yards away, on 62nd Avenue. Thompson said that did not hamper firefighters. The hydrant in front of the building was also used, but the one on 62nd has better water pressure by design, he said.
"They've made big advances with the extra hydrants and some new association rules,'' he added.
Milna Orobhiech, from Croatia, said she lost everything and had no insurance. "Everything is gone," she said, "all gone."
Orobheich's friend Jokk Radnovic, who lives in another building, cried when she found out her friend was okay. "I heard sirens," she said. "I was sick."
Halil Mekic, who lived in Unit 7, said he was a professional musician in Bosnia before he fled war there. The 65-year-old lamented the loss of his Fender guitar, Roland keyboard, Peavey amp and three computers from his personal studio.
"I am satisfied," he said. "I live. I have insurance."
Emily Nipps can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8452.