Firefighters extinguish fire at Westfield Countryside Mall

CLEARWATER — Firefighters battled a blaze at Westfield Countryside mall early Wednesday after a driver crashed into the building in a suicide attempt, authorities said.

The fire was reported about 2 a.m. after a white Honda Accord slammed into the east side of the building at the Dillard's store in the mall on U.S. 19.

Dozens of firefighters responded to the scene and found the car inside the building. By 4 a.m. Wednesday, the fire was extinguished. Later in the morning, the rest of the mall opened.

The first level of Dillard's remained closed on Wednesday but the second level was open for business. The lower level could possibly reopen today, said Westfield Countryside spokeswoman Lauren Clark.

The car smashed into a back room and did not directly impact the showroom floor, she said. But the fire set off the sprinkler system in a portion of the first floor containing handbags and men's and children's clothing. The amount of merchandise lost and its value was not determined Wednesday.

Officials said the store sustained fire, smoke and water damage. Within four hours, firefighters were able to remove the smoke inside the building with a ventilation truck.

The driver, a 64-year-old man, was the Honda's only occupant. He was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital and later transferred to Tampa General Hospital with what appeared to be serious but not life-threatening injuries that included burns, officials said.

The man told investigators the crash was a suicide attempt. He sped across the parking lot, jumped over a median and a curb and crashed into the building and into a storage room, fire rescue said.

He also admitted to leaving his home at 29250 U.S. 19 unlocked with a suicide note and next-of-kin information inside. Authorities drove to his home and confirmed that, fire rescue said.

On Wednesday, a 10-foot hole remained in the side of the building after the Honda was towed away. Yellow crime-scene tape cordoned off the area as employees of a disaster recovery business cleaned up the site. The Honda had torn out a chunk of curb and ripped up bushes and landscaping before it punched a hole in the eastern wall of Dillard's, which juts out from the northern side of the mall.

No other injuries were reported. No one was in the store during the crash. The investigation was continuing.

Times staff writers Mike Brassfield and Susan Thurston contributed to this report.

Firefighters extinguish fire at Westfield Countryside Mall 05/15/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2013 11:09pm]

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