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Published Sep. 27, 2005

Forklift accident sparks massive fire in Ybor City that destroys $33-million apartment complex, post office.

Friday morning, before it all began, Tampa Mayor Dick Greco stood before a banquet hall at the new Waterside Marriott, welcoming 500 out-of-town guests.

The mood was exuberant. The night before, the guests had been treated to fireworks on Hillsborough Bay. Now they were enjoying a breakfast of eggs, bacon and ham, fresh fruit and a speech from the mayor.

Greco _ relaxed in a silk shirt _ spoke proudly about all the new developments in Tampa. There was the Marriott, the shops by the Florida Aquarium, the 454-apartment complex that Camden Development was building in Ybor City. He encouraged his guests to visit Ybor.

Applause filled the room. As Greco sat down, a hotel employee rushed up and told him he needed to call his office immediately. There was an emergency.

Greco called his secretary, Dolores.

"Camden is on fire," she told him.

Camden was the apartment complex the mayor had just been touting.

Greco hurried for the hotel door. He saw the huge pillar of smoke, rising to the east.

"Oh my God," he said.

It was a roiling wall of flame, more than 100 feet high.

By the time exhausted firefighters had brought the blaze under control, it had consumed Camden Development's half-built Park at Ybor City apartment complex. Then, when the fire had seemingly been tamed, it spread to a U.S. post office. No one was killed, but several firefighters required medical attention. Ultimately, some $40-million of property was destroyed.

"I have been here 22 years," said Special Operations Chief Robert Simmons of Tampa Fire Rescue, "and I have never seen two full city blocks burning."

It began with a snapped power line.

According to fire investigators, Jose Chirino, 26, was operating a forklift at the apartment complex's construction site on N 20th Street. Chirino, the investigators said, was performing a routine maneuver, hoisting trusses onto the third-floor of the complex when the machine's 40-foot arm broke a 7,620-volt power line.

The wire popped and snaked to the ground, dropping onto a chain link fence below and igniting a small patch of grass.

Chirino jumped for his life.

"He dove headfirst from the forklift, which is the only thing that saved his life," said Jim Burden, whose company was doing the ironwork on one of the apartment complex's parking garages.

The live wire caught on some construction debris lying near the fence and then set fire to a nearby palm tree.

"Next thing you know, whoosh!" said Roy Nesbit, an ironworker who was working nearby.

A pile of wood started to ignite. Scores of construction workers took off, the tools on their belts bobbing around their hips.

"Fire! Fire! Fire!" they yelled, rushing away from the orange glow.