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Damage from school office fire estimated at $1-million

The fire that raced through the central offices of the Hillsborough County school system caused an estimated $1-million worth of damage, school officials said Friday.

Investigators are blaming the blaze on an electrical short in an overloaded extension cord. The fire, which broke out at 6 p.m. Thursday in a third-floor office area, gutted the northwest corner of the Raymond O. Shelton School Administration Center, and destroyed numerous records.

No employees were injured, although five firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation and one injured a knee.

"This is terrible," said Letha Silas, whose office was directly above the fire. Banned from entering the building Friday, she stood on the pavement, peering at the blackened brick facade and broken windows. "Is there anything left of my son's ceramic owl he sent me from Saudi Arabia? I'm just heartsick."

There are no sprinklers or smoke detectors in the main building, said Hillsborough County school Superintendent Walter Sickles. Sprinklers were not required under state or city code when the four-story building opened in 1979, he said.

A Halon fire suppression system, which is fire-activated and turns a liquid into a gas fire quencher, was installed in the data processing wing near the source of the fire, but it did not activate, said Fred S. Dudney Jr., the district's risk management supervisor.

He said the system could be manually activated, but was not for undetermined reasons.

Inspectors said the building's heat-treated steel and concrete frame appeared to have survived temperatures that reached 1,000 degrees.

Dudney said he expects that employees who work in the building's first two floors will be able to return their offices by Friday. Top-floor workers could return to their desks in two weeks, Dudney said, although Sickles estimated repairs could take up to three months.

In the meantime, officials said, about 400 displaced employees will be notified over the weekend where to report while repairs are made.

Officials said most of the many records lost in the fire can be replaced.

The blaze destroyed thousands of student standardized test scores, evaluations and district correspondence stored in computer files near the office of testing supervisor John Hilderbrand. Hilderbrand said there are duplicate copies of all but the correspondence elsewhere in the district.

But Friday, some schools were without substitute teachers because the teacher assignment records were housed on the building's third floor. Sickles, a supporter of school-based management, quipped that now principals will have the chance to assume more responsibilities as the district decentralizes operations.

Getting out the district's monthly $50-million payroll will be the biggest headache, Sickles said. The district, which staggers its payroll dates among employees, distributed about $30-million in paychecks on time Friday.

Sickles said next week's checks will be printed on borrowed University of South Florida computer equipment.

Offers have come from Tampa city officials and private businesses for free office space, fax machines, computers and telephones, said district spokeswoman Donna Reed.

Officials raced against time Friday to rescue fax machines and up to 300 computers that may have been damaged by heat, smoke and water damage, Dudney said. At least 20 percent of the equipment was destroyed.

Repairs will cost taxpayers $100,000, Sickles said. That money will come from the district's building and new construction fund.

The school district maintains an insurance policy, with a $100,000 deductible, on property scattered throughout Hillsborough, said insurance broker G. Joseph Williams.

Even as fire officials were determining that the blaze was caused by an overloaded extension cord, two sets of contractors hired early Friday began clean-up work. Telephone lines, ventilation and electricity had been restored to some first-floor rooms by late in the day.

Employees, asked to stay away from the still dangerous site, began filtering in to claim computer files and other records. Hilderbrand, whose office was gutted, was among those who waited to get inside.

"From what I understand, I don't have files," he said.

_ Staff writer John A. Cutter contributed to this report.