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Response to Keystone fire worries residents

KEYSTONE — Hillsborough County sheriff's Deputy Ray Rembert is homeless.

His four children — ages 11, 12, 13 and 15 — don't have school clothes, shoes, the most basic necessities.

And a piece of the community's history is just that: history.

All of it, some people in Keystone said Monday night, could have been prevented if their neighborhood had been outfitted with fire hydrants and if firefighters had responded differently.

More than 30 people gathered inside First Missionary Baptist Church of Keystone to sing hymns, pray and raise money for Rembert, a 12-year veteran of the Sheriff's Office who lost his Peterson Road Park home and virtually everything in it in a fire on April 3.

They also came with another purpose: to address what the Rev. Barron Madison called "the incompetence and the slothfulness" of Hillsborough Fire Rescue, the agency that responded to the blaze.

Iris Mitchell and her daughter, Angenetta Solomon, said time was wasted as crews went back and forth retrieving water to douse the flames. "They had to wait on water trucks three times," said Mitchell, who lives on Peterson Road.

Madison, pastor of the church that hosted Monday's forum, also questioned the position of the fire trucks at the scene. He said he tried to direct them to the east side of the home "where there's a double gate" that would have put crews within 6 feet of the fire.

Instead, firefighters positioned themselves at the front of the house where there's "just a one person walk gate," Madison said. "It wasn't wide enough for the amount of hoses they needed."

Those errors magnified what Madison and others said started as "a porch fire" to a fully engulfed blaze.

While not wishing to dismiss their observations, Hillsborough Fire Rescue spokesman Ray Yeakley said that some of the community's claims are wrong and based not in reality, but perception.

When the first crew arrived at the home at 8:49 p.m. — only 5 1/2 minutes after the first 911 call — firefighters determined that 50 percent of the 1,100-square-foot house was already on fire.

"They (observers) saw the fire on the porch," Yeakley said. "They didn't see how much fire was on the inside."

Every engine that responded — there were four in this case — had anywhere from 750 to 1,000 gallons of water, Yeakley said. A tanker the department trucked in held an additional 3,500 gallons of water. "At no time," he said, "was the water supply ever interrupted."

Firefighters contained the fire in about 45 minutes, though they remained on the scene for nearly two more hours extinguishing hot spots. They still don't know what caused the fire.

It's no small loss. Charlie Walker, the namesake of Walker Middle School, who petitioned Hillsborough Schools to build the Citrus Park Colored School in 1924, built the home.

The fire has some wondering: Might fire hydrants have saved a house that held so much history?

It's not a simple question. Rural communities such as Keystone do not have county water and sewer. Tradition and growth restrictions have kept many of these properties on well water. Hydrants require the high pressure that county water lines provide.

But Madison asked his congregation, "Do we want hydrants?"

Hands went up all over the sanctuary.

Rodney Thrash can be reached at rthrash@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5303.

Response to Keystone fire worries residents 04/10/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 11, 2008 11:26pm]
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