BRANDON — What should have been one of the busiest shopping days of the season at the Westfield Brandon mall's JCPenney turned into a fire cleanup Sunday as store employees sorted through an estimated $1 million in damage, officials said.
An electrical fire, which started about 11:30 p.m. Saturday, caused severe water and smoke damage to the 148,000-square-foot store and ruined much of its merchandise, said Ronnie Rivera, a spokesman for Hillsborough County Fire Rescue.
"Everything was covered with smoke," Rivera said. "The whole building."
Fire rescue spent almost four hours trying to remove smoke from the store and were able to prevent it from spreading through the rest of the mall.
Store officials would not say when they expect to reopen. The chain's corporate offices in Plano, Texas, were closed Sunday.
Westfield Brandon posted on its Facebook page that while the remainder of the mall is still open, the JCPenney store is "closed until further notice."
With Christmas just days off, the store's holiday may be done.
"The entire inventory is done," Rivera said. "They have to replace it. It's tough when something like this happens at Christmas. They were counting on their Christmas sales. The good thing is that there was no loss of life" or injuries.
He said the fire started inside a wall on the first floor and has been ruled accidental. Some employees were in the store when the fire started and were able to get out and report it.
Shopper Cassia Clingan of Brandon was surprised to find such a good parking spot outside the store Sunday afternoon — until she saw the caution tape, smelled the smoke and realized the store was closed.
"No wonder there's so many good spots open in front of JCPenney's," she said as she and her boyfriend read a closure sign posted on the door inside the mall. "Most of our shopping comes from here. I guess we'll have to go to another store, maybe Kohl's."
The couple had planned on buying gifts for at least three family members at the store, but had to change plans and look elsewhere.
At least some of the employees of the JCPenney store — one of eight in the Tampa Bay area and an anchor store at the Brandon mall — were on hand Sunday helping in the cleanup. Six Stanley Steemer trucks were parked at entrances, their crews busily moving in and out of the store.
There are 1,100 JCPenney stores nationally and they have struggled financially through much of 2013 at the hands of management missteps and sluggish sales, analysts say. Its stock dropped 70 percent in two years.
The company reported a net loss of $457 million for three months ending Nov. 2, according to the New York Times. The chain's reported November sales, including the critical Thanksgiving season, showed signs of recovery.
But that boom might be dashed for the Westfield Brandon location after dozens of shoppers turned away from the store Sunday afternoon when seeing the posting on the doors.
"They had some good sales we were looking at," Mario Cabrera of Tampa said. "I planned on it, but now we can't even go inside."