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Lesson in condo fire: "Fix the holes'

(ran West, South, East, Seminole editions)

Fire officials now believe a three-story condominium destroyed last month likely had smoke barriers that were rendered ineffective because they had been drilled to make room for wiring.

Lealman fire officials recently inspected a neighboring building at the Town Apartments North, 1950 59th Ave., a condominium complex housing mostly seniors.

That building had smoke barriers in the attics with "a lot" of holes cut through them to make way for cable and other wiring, Lealman fire Chief Rick Graham said. Officials assume the burned-out, 54-unit Nautilus building had the same design as the other units, all of which were constructed in the 1960s.

Graham said the department will make several recommendations to Town Apartments residents to help prevent another tragedy.

"Fix the holes. That's the obvious one," Graham said. "We'll also recommend fire stops, actual fire-rated walls" be installed.

On June 21, the Nautilus building ignited near a stove in a third-story apartment. The fire spread rapidly, eventually destroying the building and causing an estimated $4.3-million in damage.

Much of the aftermath has focused on the problems firefighters had getting water on the flames. The nearest hydrant was about 800 feet away. The other two hydrants used were even farther, and firefighters had to pump water from a nearby pond to help put out the blaze. They were helped by a rainstorm.

The fire has become a symbol of the lack of fire hydrants in the Lealman Fire District, which spreads from just east of Interstate 275 to Park Street between Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg. Kenneth City is in the middle.

County officials, who oversee the unincorporated area, said the district needs about 160 more hydrants. They've come up with a list of 44 hydrants, which they said can be installed immediately on existing water mains. (See map, page .) The remainder will need new or enlarged mains before they can be installed.

The county wants St. Petersburg to pay the estimated $1.9-million to install the hydrants because the city supplies water to that area. St. Petersburg officials have said they are not responsible for improving Lealman's infrastructure and said the county needs to pay for the hydrants.

The two are trying to work out a solution.

Lealman fire officials agree the hydrants are important, but they're not so sure having more hydrants would have saved the Nautilus building. The fire spread so fast, they said, that firefighters fought a losing battle from the time they arrived.

At first, officials thought the fire spread rapidly because the Nautilus building lacked fire walls. But they looked further after reading a St. Petersburg Times report that plans of neighboring buildings (plans for the Nautilus building could not be located) indicated there were some sort of fire barriers.

What they found, Graham said, were "smoke barriers" made of drywall that had not been taped or finished. Cracks existed at the drywall joints.

A smoke barrier is designed to prevent smoke from spreading through a building and should help retard the spread of fire. (A fire wall stops the spread of fire for much longer.) But the smoke barriers in Town Apartments had holes cut in them to make way for cable, phone or other wiring. It's unclear, Graham said, if the barriers were designed to have holes or the holes were cut later.

What is clear, he said, is the effect. Even a small hole allows smoke, heat and flames to easily spread from place to place. These barriers had big holes, he said, making them pretty much useless as fire retardants.

Town Apartments is not alone in that, Graham said.

Many buildings in Lealman and elsewhere were built before cable TV and computers became widespread, he said. As owners of homes, condos and apartments began to upgrade, workers cut into smoke barriers. Contractors often neglected to patch the hole, leaving people at risk.

"Even a small hole can make a difference," Graham said. "People need to make sure that the companies they deal with are licensed and are performing their work up to code."

Lealman fire officials are willing to check homes and complexes to see whether fire walls have been breached and to make suggestions about fire safety, Graham said. What the department cannot do is force folks to fix fire walls that have been damaged.

"We have no enforcement mechanism (so that) we can make them do it. Now, who can make them do it is the insurance company," Graham said. Insurers can raise rates if the repairs are not made.

"That typically gets things done," he said.