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Quick response limits fire damage

It may be months before The Candle Shoppe in Tarpon Springs is able to reopen.

Fire officials Friday blamed an extension cord overloaded by electrical holiday decorations for a fire that caused $750,000 in damage to several stores along the Sponge Docks Thursday evening.

Although the fire gutted The Candle Shoppe and caused smoke damage to two clothing stores, a quick response by firefighters may have prevented a much bigger disaster in the densely packed Sponge Exchange shopping center.

Had the fire occurred at 3 a.m., when it may have gone unnoticed for several minutes, rather than about 7:30 p.m., "I'm sure we would've had a much different outcome," Tarpon Springs Deputy Fire Chief Kevin Bowman said.

On Friday afternoon, as workers swept up the sooty mess on the sidewalk outside the The Candle Shoppe and a steady stream of tourists stopped behind the yellow "Caution" tape to stare at the fire-damaged store, store owner Sandra Myers suddenly felt uncomfortable.

"I feel like I should be doing something because we're always working," said Mrs. Myers, a Holiday resident who has run the store with her husband, Terry, for more than 14 years.

As the Myerses geared up for the busy tourist season, Thursday night's fire caused nearly a half-million dollars' worth of damage to merchandise.

Mrs. Myers said their insurance wouldn't cover all their losses.

"We didn't have that much coverage," she said. "We never insured as high as the contents. You never think it's going to happen to you."

Aside from being their retirement nest egg, she said, the store is their passion.

"It's just so sad to see all this destroyed," she said. "The love of our life is making candles."

Fire officials say the fire was caused by overloading an extension cord near the display window at the north end of the store. There were several window displays hooked up to one extension cord, Deputy Fire Chief Bowman said, including a revolving Christmas tree and several lighted mannequins. Overloading outlets is an all-too-common holiday fire hazard, he said.

Two store employees were bringing in the bargain table from outside and were getting ready to close up shop when they discovered the fire.

The Tarpon Springs Fire Department responded within 3{minutes and kept the fire from spreading much beyond The Candle Shoppe, though the abutting Joey's Boutique and Going Bananas, both clothing stores, were damaged by smoke.

"Everything is totally smoked," said Joey Balmer, owner of Joey's Boutique, which sells upscale women's apparel. "Who wants to buy clothes that smell like smoke?"

Balmer said she feels terrible for the Myerses.

"But everything can be replaced," Balmer said. "Thank God no one was hurt."

Balmer said she's glad two employees were still at The Candle Shoppe to report the fire. If not for them, she said, the whole mall might have burned down. There are 40 stores in the Sponge Exchange.

As it was, the fire still wreaked havoc. Total damage was estimated at $750,000, most of that due to damaged merchandise.

Jack Pappas, owner of the Sponge Exchange, which opened in 1983, said it will take at least three months to make the structural repairs necessary to reopen The Candle Shoppe. Balmer hopes to reopen Joey's by Feb. 1, and Going Bananas owner Phil Kenyon said he hopes to reopen his store within a week.

The losses at The Candle Shoppe are particularly bad because this is the beginning of the heavy shopping season for stores along the Sponge Docks, Pappas said.

"This is going to be kind of rough for them (the Myerses)," Pappas said. "They are good people and good tenants. My heart goes out to them. We're going to do everything we can to get them back in business."

The Myerses have been coming in early every day for the past few weeks, preparing for the busy season.

"My husband had been re-stocking for days," Mrs. Myers said.

"For years," Myers said.

The two were visibly distraught on Friday as insurance estimators and construction contractors surveyed the damage.

"We worked really hard over the last 14{ years to build this up," Mrs. Myers said.

_ Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or