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Post office raises tent, saves mail

But the postal workers union questions the lack of a sprinkler system and evacuation during a fire.

Just outside the shade of a tent set up on an Ybor City parking lot, residents lined up to get their mail Monday.

If not for last week's fire, they would have been reaching into their post office boxes in the cool of an air-conditioned building instead of standing under the hot sun. But the minor inconvenience, residents said, pales when compared with the horror of what could have been.

A huge fire raged for 20 minutes just across the street from the post office Friday before workers realized what was going on. Heat from that blaze burned through the roof of the post office, torching the wooden structure underneath and leading to the building's destruction.

Panicked postal workers scrambled out of the building before it burned.

"It was a scary situation," said Lisa Fur, a Tampa resident who used to get her mail from two boxes at the post office. "I'm just glad everything's okay."

But that good fortune masks other questions about Friday's fire.

Why did the 21,000-square foot building have no sprinkler system? Were workers evacuated soon enough?

Those questions, said Floyd Pawson, president of the local union of postal workers, need answers.

"We intend to notify OSHA and Congressman Jim Davis," Pawson said. "This could have been a very serious tragedy."

Pawson said the union is concerned that workers had only one exit and were temporarily trapped against a wrought-iron fence as the fire approached. He said the union also is looking into whether a supervisor at the airport branch told an Ybor supervisor to continue unloading mail instead of evacuating.

The fire was consuming most of the apartment complex across the street at the time and evacuating earlier could have prevented the panicked rush when workers realized how close the fire was, Pawson said.

Finally, Pawson said, union leaders don't understand why sprinklers were not required in the 13-year old building.

No one from the U.S. Postal Service could answer that question Monday, but several postal officials said sprinklers would not have saved the building.

Tampa Fire Rescue Capt. Bill Wade agreed.

"Sprinklers are down where the people are," Wade said. "The roof caught fire."

Although the apartments' developer vows to rebuild, it was uncertain Monday whether the Postal Service would.

The state Department of Transportation plans to use as much as 18 feet of the post office site's north edge when it widens Interstate 4 in the next three years. Postal service officials said they have not decided whether to rebuild on that smaller site or elsewhere in Ybor.

On Monday, the outside walls of the post office were intact, but the top of the building was collapsed and its insides charred. Postal workers pulled blackened packages from the mess, drying some and wiping soot off others.

If salvaged mail is deliverable, it will be delivered, said Bridget Robertson, a customer-relations coordinator for the U.S. Postal Service. Other parcels and letters will be returned to senders if their addresses are legible. It could take as long as a week to get the mail out of the building.

All mail slowed by the fire will come with a note of explanation.

"We want to let them know exactly what happened," Robertson said. "This was something that was beyond everyone's control."

Residents seemed to understand that Monday.

"I wouldn't have expected them to go to this extent," Fur said, looking at the tent and at the water coolers set up for residents. "This is great."

The fact that the fire did not take place at the beginning of the month, when Social Security and other aid checks come by mail, was a saving grace, Robertson said.

A trailer will be set up on the parking lot as a temporary post office. And the postal service is willing to write letters for residents who need to explain why mail wasn't delivered on time.

Customers with questions about service can call a special line set up to answer them: (813) 889-3952.

Keeping the mail flowing hasn't been easy, Robertson said, adding that postal workers came in on Saturday and volunteered on Sunday.

"We were working to serve customers like nothing happened," said Frank Ramos, a seven-year veteran of the Ybor City branch who cut his leg trying to escape the heat of Friday's fire. "It's what we do."

_ Staff writer Steve Huettel contributed to this report.