Saturday, June 23, 2018
Public safety

Tower fire still a mystery at Wall Springs Park

PALM HARBOR — A week after fire destroyed the observation tower at Wall Springs Park, investigators are still at a loss as to what, or who, caused the blaze.

A park visitor reported seeing flames at the tower just after sunrise on Sept. 11. When firefighters reached the park around 7:45 a.m., flames had already chewed through the top two levels of the four-level structure.

The tower, which is separated from the main park by a bridge, wasn't wired for electricity. And a clear day meant no potential for a lightning strike.

"It's not something that started in the brush," Palm Harbor Fire Rescue spokeswoman Liz Monforti said. "It specifically started in the tower."

The $315,000 structure, built overlooking St. Joseph Sound for the enjoyment of bird watchers and view seekers, was a total loss. County officials say they'll rebuild.

• • •

Wall Springs Park's gate opens to a manicured lawn, a flag pole and palm trees. It is anchored by the spring that gave the park its name, a blue-green pool where mullet, sheepshead and otters stay close to the surface. Until the mid 1960s, it was a popular spot for swimmers.

Beyond the spring, a path gives way to a bridge over Boggy Bayou. On the other side, a small island separates the park from St. Joseph Sound and the Gulf of Mexico. That's where the tower stood, giving park visitors a wide view of the water, a place to picnic and a perfect vantage point for bird watching.

"You could see over the water. You could see everything," Maria Ancona, 52, said.

The tower was the only way Ancona could see those areas of the park and the sound. The Tarpon Springs grandmother misses the view.

"This is the kind of vandalism people don't expect," Ancona said as she visited the park with her 2-year-old grandson Santino. "But it exists."

The park sees about 400,000 visitors a year, said Kathy Swain, operations manager for the North District Parks and Conservation Resources Department. Much of its traffic comes from riders on the Pinellas Trail, which runs past the park gate. The park's 200 acres also contain a butterfly garden and covered playgrounds that are favorites for families on weekends.

"We love this park," Cheryl A. Cook, 41, of Oldsmar said Wednesday.

Last time she visited with her children, her daughter was dying to visit the tower. Cook was tired, the kids had been playing, and she promised her they'd come back next time.

"We never made it to next time."

• • •

Detectives from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office arson and auto theft unit are still investigating the fire. Despite calls for tips, Detective Larry McClean said, they've had no feedback. Someone spotted the fire, but so far, no one has come forward to say who started it.

The bridge leading to the island where the tower stood is now blocked. Signs hang from the gate announcing an arson investigation in large red letters. The picnic areas will remain closed while construction crews demolish the remains of the tower.

Monforti lamented the loss of the tower, but said it could have been much worse.

"It's been a little dry in that area, and if the wind would have shifted or if the firefighters hadn't been paying attention or something," she said, "the fire could have easily swept through the park."

Claire Wiseman can be reached at (727) 893-8804 or [email protected] On Twitter: @clairelwiseman. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

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