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Post office fire to get quick fix

A temporary facility will be set up next to the charred Ybor City building as officials look for other suitable space.

Traditionally, the United States Postal Service has staked its reputation on being able to deliver the mail regardless of external circumstances.

So two days after a fire destroyed the post office in Ybor City, officials on Sunday were preparing to set up a temporary facility next to the charred building to keep service running.

Spokesman Gary Sawtelle said employees will be on hand in the rear parking lot from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. to serve customers who had post office boxes in the building.

On Saturday, the post office began rerouting mail from that office through its facility on E Hillsborough Avenue. Sawtelle said officials expect no delays with first-class and priority mail. All other classes should be back on schedule by midweek, he said.

"We are looking to find a more permanent site in the neighborhood, a storefront or lease some space, to more permanently serve customers," Sawtelle said Sunday.

"In the meantime, we are going to set up a double-wide trailer on the site and install some boxes. Maybe in about a week, we will start to offer retail service out of there, selling stamps and that sort of thing."

Service was first interrupted Friday morning after a forklift operator snapped a 7,620-volt power line on 20th Street and Palm Avenue. The live wire started a fire that sent flames through a two-block area.

No one was killed, but the fire caused nearly $40-million in damage, mostly to the 454-unit apartment complex being built by Camden Development Inc. and to the post office.

Sawtelle said officials have yet to determine how much mail was lost.

"It happened so quickly," Sawtelle said. "Some of the carriers that day were loading their trucks for that day's delivery. Some of the mail was already out in the vehicles. It was difficult to say what percentage of mail was left in the building."

Plans to replace the building are being discussed, but Sawtelle said a decision has yet to be made.

"We are going to have a presence in Ybor," he said. "I'm not sure when or where, but we will be actively working out a plan to build and put a post office in Ybor City."

For some people, the idea of having to explain that a check was lost in the mail might seem troubling. Sawtelle said the post office is prepared to provide letters validating those claims.

"If they were expecting a check, or had sent a check to a creditor, we could provide a letter that supports the fact that there was a fire at the post office on that particular day."

On Sunday, convoys of trucks, cars and motorcycles made the trip to Ybor to witness the damage for themselves. Drivers slowed their vehicles, stopping to gawk at the rubble and debris. Some took photographs. Others had to be warned by police and private security officers hired by Camden Development Inc. to stay off the property.

"It's just curiosity," said Chuck Simmons, director of security for Camden Development Inc. "You have to keep them off the property. If we didn't, they would walk right out there. Luckily, nobody's been hurt."

Al Hailes wanted to see what he had heard all weekend.

Hailes did not cross the lines and walk on the property. Instead, he carried a camera along 19th Street and snapped photos of the melted light bulbs in the lamp posts beside the post office.

"I've been seeing it in the paper, and I wanted to come see it for myself," said Hailes, a longtime Tampa resident. "It was a lot worse than the pictures in the paper were showing."

_ Michael Sandler can be reached at (813) 226-3472 or