Fire destroys vacant building in St. Petersburg

Lt. Eric Dinan uses a thermal imaging camera to check for hot spots at the remains of the Biltmore Apartments on Sunday. A blaze consumed the entire building and damaged adjacent buildings.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR | Times

Lt. Eric Dinan uses a thermal imaging camera to check for hot spots at the remains of the Biltmore Apartments on Sunday. A blaze consumed the entire building and damaged adjacent buildings.

ST. PETERSBURG — Douglas Parks hit the sack early Saturday night. It was so early that in the budding hours of Sunday morning, he was awake reading.

Parks, who lives in Bay Plaza Apartments at 419 Third Ave. N in St. Petersburg, got out of bed to go use the bathroom when he smelled something strange.

"I opened my door and the hallway was smoky," Parks, 41, said. "I looked out back and black smoke was just rolling over the fence. I said, 'this baby is on fire' and dialed 911."

That was at 3:05 a.m. — the same time that St. Petersburg Fire Rescue got a call that the Biltmore Apartments was on fire. The three-story wood-frame structure at 435 Third Ave. N is a few feet from Bay Plaza.

Four minutes after the call, firefighters were on the scene battling the blaze. It took more than 100 firefighters to quench the blaze.

"You could hear the crackling," Parks said. "Like it was wood in a fireplace."

It was 4:46 a.m. before the fire was under control. The Biltmore Apartments building was destroyed, said Assistant Chief James Wimberly.

Firefighters had to cut the electricity to Bay Plaza because so much water had gotten into the adjacent building's attic.

Sixty-five people were evacuated from Bay Plaza. And 96 were evacuated from the Marriott Courtyard hotel, but were allowed to return to their rooms later.

The fire's origin and cause have not been determined, Wimberly said.

Because of the safety hazard that the wood structure presented, a demolition company was called in Sunday afternoon to bring the building down.

The Biltmore Apartments building has been vacant and boarded up for many years, but the area's homeless often frequented it.

"We will take it apart, piece by piece," Wimberly said. "We are hopeful that no one was in there but we don't know for sure yet. Hopefully, we will not find anyone."

Sandy Privitera owns the Legal Building with her husband. It sits to the west of Biltmore Apartments. She said all the window blinds on that side melted and there's a heavy smoke smell in the building. Privitera said the good thing is that most of the offices on that side of the building are empty.

The American Red Cross was on the scene early Sunday and provided breakfast at the Sunshine Center on Fifth Street N to those displaced. They later moved across the street to Trinity Lutheran Church, also on Fifth Street N, where they were provided lunch, dinner and cots to sleep on.

Some residents of Bay Plaza were allowed back into their apartments Sunday afternoon but there was still too much water and smoke damage for others to return.

"Everything I own is in there and soaking wet," Parks said. "Even the few things that I managed to grab are wet."

Donald Werner, 56, has lived at Bay Plaza for about four years. He praised firefighters for managing to contain the fire to the one building despite its proximity to two others.

"If it wasn't for those firemen, I think we would have lost our building," said Werner, who has asthma. "That fire scared the you-know-what out of me. I can't believe I got my clothes on as fast as I did."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at (727) 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.

Fire destroys vacant building in St. Petersburg 11/09/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 11, 2008 1:24pm]

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