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Fatal fire at Potbellies restaurant remains under investigation, and has raised questions about other blazes

TAMPA — A woman died in an apartment fire March 22 above a South Tampa restaurant. The next day, Tampa Fire Rescue said the blaze did not appear to be suspicious.

But, nearly three months later, the Fire Marshal's Office has not formally ruled on the cause of the blaze.

Instead, the office reopened an investigation into at least one earlier fire at the restaurant, Potbellies on Himes Avenue.

The building has caught fire three times in four years, according to city records.

Sam Lovely owns the building and operates the restaurant. His brother, Roger Lovely, said in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times that he gave a sworn statement to Tampa fire marshal investigator Ray Alcover and provided information about two previous fires.

Roger Lovely's statement led the Fire Marshal's Office to take a closer look at the restaurant's fire history, Alcover confirmed. The investigator spoke briefly about the case earlier this week but declined to comment further. He would not say what Lovely told him.

"It is an active investigation," Alcover said. "We are actively interviewing people."

Fire Marshal Geoff Brown would not discuss the case.

"I can't tell you anything except that all this stuff is under investigation," he said.

The first of the three fires at issue occurred on Sept. 11, 2005. The fire marshal concluded it started when a food warming table caught fire. Sam Lovely says a paper tablecloth accidentally caught fire from a burner.

A month later, on Oct. 17, 2005, fire destroyed Potbellies' bar area. Fire marshal investigator Al Alcala found an electrical short in the ceiling breaker panel, a Tampa Fire Rescue report states.

The most recent fire, after midnight March 22, killed 48-year-old Kathy Alm, who lived alone in one of two apartments above the restaurant.

Three adults and two children reached safety. One man ran outside and caught his sister and 16-month-old niece, as they dropped from a second-story window, witnesses said at the time.

Alm screamed from her window for help before she died of smoke inhalation, according to Tampa Fire Rescue.

A Hillsborough County medical examiner's investigative report said the fire blocked her escape. Survivors said she may have saved them by banging on the walls before she perished.

A Tampa police report said it appeared the fire started at an entryway in the northeast corner of the second floor.

Potbellies, a South Tampa brunch staple, sits on Himes Avenue behind Britton Plaza in a 4,782-square-foot building with masonry and frame stucco for exterior walls, wood trusses that support the roof, drywall and plywood paneling inside, carpet and tile on the floor and central air conditioning. It is worth more than $550,000, according to Hillsborough County property records.

Sam Lovely said squabbles between Roger Lovely and his twin brother Rodney may have led Roger to make allegations to the Fire Marshal's Office. Rodney Lovely has worked at the South Tampa Potbellies.

"If you don't take his side, he's mad at you," Sam Lovely said. "I'm 45 years old. I don't have time for this petty c---. I have a restaurant to run."

Roger Lovely owns another restaurant in Brandon with the similar name Pot Bellies.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Fatal fire at Potbellies restaurant remains under investigation, and has raised questions about other blazes 06/12/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 17, 2009 1:51pm]
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