TAMPA — Bright orange flames and dark plumes of smoke engulfed a Seminole Heights landmark Sunday evening, destroying a family-owned hardware store where clerks greeted customers by name and a gray cat often sat on the counter.
Dozens of residents looked on as firefighters pointed streams of water at Tampa Bay Hardware, 5511 N Nebraska Ave. They watched the roof of the building cave in. They saw its charred facade start to crumble.
"It's like a death in the family," said Seminole Heights resident Nancy Walsh, 47, as she watched the fire from across the street.
It took more than 50 firefighters about an hour to contain the fire, which started about 6 p.m. and caused more than $1-million in damage, Tampa Fire Rescue Capt. Bill Wade said.
Propane tanks and other flammable items made it difficult to extinguish, he said.
The store opened in 1941.
"That's probably where I bought my first tools to repair my bicycle," said Ed Atzenhoefer, 62.
Even as big-box stores moved in nearby, it remained a popular place to buy obscure plumbing parts and the nuts and bolts needed for home repairs.
The green-eyed cat named Rebel often sat on the counter.
He was missing after Sunday's fire, Wade said.
The store's owner, Tom Roberts, declined to comment Sunday. He told fire officials he has owned the store since 1980. No one was injured in the fire, which started when the store was closed.
As firefighters battled the blaze, Fran Gutcher stood beside streams of water flooding the street and craned her neck.
For more than 20 years, Sullivan's Holster Shop, which she owns with her husband, stood behind the hardware store. The fire damaged their store, too.
"Oh, I hate that smell," she said as shook her head and covered her eyes. "Tomorrow I'm going to be crying."
Firefighters planned to remain at the store through the night Sunday to extinguish hot spots. Parts of Nebraska Avenue could be closed into this morning, Wade said.
The cause of the blaze has not yet been determined.