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Project to push on despite fire

The complex in Ybor City that burned will be rebuilt. Some units will open on time before 2001. Others may be set back a year.

The inferno that destroyed most of Ybor City's first major residential development in decades will delay construction on the apartment project as much as a year, officials with Camden Development said Monday.

The 454-unit complex, called the Park at Ybor City, likely won't be completed until early 2002, said Jerry Hasara, Camden's regional vice president.

But work on a block of 70 apartments was untouched by the fire, and those units could be ready for tenants by year's end, he said. Hasara told a gathering of city officials and Ybor business people that Camden officials began planning how to rebuild the apartments as embers smoldered Friday.

"Camden is committed to Tampa and committed to the mayor's vision of Ybor City," he said.

City officials worried Friday about what impact it might have on plans to transform Ybor from a Generation Y weekend party into a place young professionals will live and shop.

But Camden executives first called to reassure Mayor Dick Greco at midday Friday.

Work on the project had been going on for a year and was about one-third complete when the fire struck Friday morning, Hasara said. The complex originally was supposed to be finished in summer 2001.

Crews had begun clearing out debris Monday and were expected to be finished by the end of the week, he said. Inspectors thought even the concrete slabs most of the apartment buildings sat on would have to be torn out and replaced, Hasara said.

Still, some of the work was salvageable. Fire didn't damage construction on the easternmost block of apartments.

Unlike the rest of the complex, where residents will use a central parking garage, the remaining apartments will have their own parking beneath the units, Hasara said. Only work on the steel garage frame had begun.

Likewise, the concrete pad and much of the steel for the central garage were not seriously damaged, he said. Sixteen to 20 other units on a corner untouched by fire might also be saved, Hasara said.

Camden was fully insured for the loss, he said.

The company also doesn't have to worry about losing laborers in the tight construction employment market. Subcontractors will shift to another Camden project, Marina Pointe on Hillsborough Avenue, and return when work is finished there, Hasara said.

Erecting wood framing for the complex before installing fire walls likely let the fire spread more quickly, fire officials said Friday.

Hasara didn't know Monday whether Camden would continue the practice in Ybor. But he said that the method was legal and that Camden would work with fire officials on the reconstruction.

The company praised the work of firefighters who battled the blaze. Camden will donate $25,000 to the city's firefighter museum in their honor, Hasara said.

Greco, City Council members and Ybor merchants lined up to honor city firefighters as well as those who assisted from surrounding areas at a ceremony Monday at the Tampa Convention Center.

Tampa Fire Chief Pete Botto singled out four Tampa firefighters who were injured during the blaze, which began after a forklift operator snapped a 7,620-volt power line.

Larry Gray, 39, said his colleagues on Engine 10 knew not to bother with the apartment complex, which was a lost cause.

Gray said he started to feel lethargic and nauseated as his unit tried to keep flames from spreading to the post office. But he charged on.

"In this business, you continue to push the envelope," Gray said. "You can't say, "It's time for my break.' "

Eventually, Gray succumbed to the extreme temperatures. By the time fire spread to the post office, he was being treated for heat exhaustion. On his way out of Monday's event, Botto paused to thank Gray, a 15-year veteran of the force.

"This guy should have been relieved at the 20-minute mark," Botto said. "An hour later, he was still ticking."

_ Staff Writer Joe Humphrey contributed to this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at (813) 226-3384, or at huettelsptimes.com.

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