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Multiple factors fueled Ybor fire

From the closest fire station being unmanned to a downed power line, several circumstances frustrated firefighters.

Of all the places in Ybor City for a fire to break out, the corner of 20th Street and Palm Avenue might seem the least troublesome.

Normally, the three-man crew of Rescue 4 waits at the fire station 100 yards away, a pumper truck at the ready.

But when a forklift operator snapped a 7,620-volt power line Friday morning, neither the firefighters nor their truck were close enough to spot the flames. They were more than a mile away on Lake Avenue, getting a two-way radio on the truck repaired.

It was just one of several frustrating circumstances related to the fire, which would rage out of control and destroy a $33-million apartment complex under construction, and a post office across the street.

Among those circumstances:

Power in the area had been interrupted Tuesday, and an employee of a nearby business suspected the forklift had brushed the wires. But he didn't report his suspicions to TECO or the contractor.

The downed power line impeded firefighters trying to put the fire out before it spread.

Fire-retardant siding had not yet been installed, and the construction site was at its most vulnerable to fire.

The fire dealt a stinging setback to the revitalization of Ybor City. The Park at Ybor City, the 454-unit apartment complex that burned, was a linchpin in the plan and was to open later this year.

While Camden Development Inc. had insurance, there was uncertainty after the fire whether it would commit to rebuilding. Saturday, the city's top development official, Fernando Noriega, got a call from David Kubin, the company's project manager.

"He feels very positive," Noriega said. "He said everything is looking good" to rebuild.

Battling the fire proved a far more daunting task than persuading the developer to rebuild.

When the fire alarm went off at 8:54 a.m., the closest fire station was without its truck or firefighters. Instead, a crew from Rescue 6, 1.1 miles to the south, was the first to arrive, pulling up minutes before the small fire erupted into a conflagration.

Leaving a station unmanned for short periods while equipment is repaired is not unusual, Tampa fire officials said Saturday. Officials at other departments said they also leave small stations unmanned for less than an hour or two, rather than reassign equipment from other stations to cover.

"If it's only going to take a half hour, there's no sense shifting all that equipment back and forth," said Bill Wade, a spokesman for Tampa Fire Rescue. "I wish we had that kind of staffing" to cover all absences.

Even with the closest station unmanned, the fire wasn't that large when the first firefighters did arrive.

"We saw a column of smoke that would come from a trash fire, but it was still mostly trash," said Richard Tatum, one of two firefighters first on the scene. But as he stretched a hose, "it increased in intensity in a matter of minutes."

Getting to the flames was complicated by the high-voltage power line on the ground.

"We can start fighting the fire (before the electricity is shut down), but we have to use a lot of caution as far as directing the streams around the live wires," he said.

Laura Plumb, a TECO spokeswoman, said the power company received a call from a 911 dispatcher at 8:56 a.m. that the power line was down, and dispatched a crew at 9:01 a.m. One minute later, she said, the circuit automatically shut off the power.

Tatum said he and his partner arrived about 9 a.m., but he estimated it was 15 minutes before he got word the power was off. By then, the flames were leaping from building to building. Whether the power remained on that long, or there was a delay in Tatum getting the word, was unclear Saturday.

Seeing the forklift tangled in the power lines was no surprise to Lon Hathaway, maintenance supervisor at the Ybor City Brewing Co. across the street from where the fire started.

He suspects the forklift brushed the lines Tuesday morning, when the brewing company building lost power momentarily. He looked out to see the forklift moving trusses dangerously close to the wires. "We saw what the problem was," Hathaway said Saturday. "It was close enough where it wasn't too hard to figure what had happened."

Plumb said there was a circuit interruption at the construction site at 8:01 a.m. Tuesday. But the interruption, the equivalent of a hiccup, wasn't serious enough to send a crew out. And no one called to complain, Plumb said.

"I should have," Hathaway said. "I realize that now. But you have to be a little cautious when you start saying what they should or shouldn't do."

Federal rules require heavy machinery stay at least 10 feet from power lines. If an operator wants to work any closer, he must contact the power company and request the lines be insulated or power re-routed. TECO said Friday that no such request was made at the Camden site.

The forklift driver, Jose N. Chirino, 26, could not be reached Saturday. According to county computer records, he has lived at numerous addresses in Tampa the past several years, and earlier this year he had his driver's license revoked for 180 days for a drunken driving conviction.

Wade, the Tampa Fire spokesman, would not speculate about what might have happened had the closest fire station been manned, or had the power lines not impeded the firefighters or had the brewing company employee called to complain Tuesday.

None of the features to douse or retard fires had been installed on the wooden frame of the apartments, and the flames had nothing to stop their progress.

Remarkably, only four firefighters were injured in one of the city's most spectacular and intense fires. Lt. Troy Basham was in stable condition Saturday at Tampa General Hospital after being treated for chest pains. The others were released Friday.

It wasn't until 1 a.m. Saturday morning that the last firefighters left the smoldering remains.

_ Times photographer Mike Pease contributed to this report.