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Mammoth fire destroys Ybor building

A fire erupted in Ybor City Sunday night, destroying a century-old building and endangering the Columbia Restaurant.

The Columbia is across 22nd Street from the site of the fire, which consumed the brick-and-wood structure on the southeast corner of 22nd Street and Seventh Avenue.

Flames rose 50 feet into the air, and sent embers to the roof of the Columbia, forcing firefighters to mist its roof to prevent the blaze from spreading.

The building at 2201 E Seventh Ave. was empty and no one was injured in the blaze, which devastated an antiques and furniture shop on the first floor of the building. The second floor was mostly or entirely unoccupied, said Capt. Bill Wade of Tampa Fire Rescue.

The fire's cause was unknown Sunday night, Wade said. Three investigators waited for the fire to be extinguished before they could dig through the ashes to figure out what happened.

The fire began shortly after 8 p.m. Tampa police cruising through the area spotted it first, Wade said.

At least 18 firetrucks and support vehicles and 55 firefighters responded from Tampa Fire Rescue and Hillsborough Fire Rescue.

"I drove past like 30 minutes ago, and it was fine," said Dina Salgado of Tampa. "Now what's happening?"

Columbia manager Joe Gonzalez told WFTS-Ch. 28 news that the restaurant had about 25 to 30 guests when they were told to evacuate the building.

University of South Florida student Tony Caldwell was valet parking cars for the Columbia when the fire erupted.

"At first we were asking whether we needed to evacuate, and they told us no," he said. "But about 45 minutes later, they're like, okay, everybody has to get out."

Andrea DiMisa was dining with family at the Columbia when the fire erupted. She and her family joined a group of about 150 people across Seventh Avenue watching firefighters put out the blaze.

"That's one of the most amazing things I've ever seen," said DiMisa, 29. "It's horrible and it's beautiful."

Wade said the fire destroyed the wooden floors and trusses inside the building. Whether the brick walls would survive depended on whether the heat caused the mortar to dry and crack.

Tony LaColla, president of the Historic Ybor Neighborhood Association, lives just a block away He thought something was burning inside his townhouse before he heard the sirens.

"You're used to hearing sirens in Ybor, but this was different," he said. "At first I thought it was the Columbia. But this is devastating to see a historic building like this destroyed."

Gary Mormino, history professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, said the lost building isn't a landmark and didn't experience Ybor's heyday in the 1990s.

"It had not been to the best of my knowledge a building that had been swept in the renaissance of Ybor City," he said.

Despite the success of the Columbia Restaurant, Mormino said, he hasn't seen dramatic change in that part of the district's structure, and said the area is one of the less flourishing parts of Ybor.

Ybor's borders have historically been defined by 21st and 22nd streets, he said.

He said the area's last great boom would have been during the World War II era because 21st and 22nd streets took people to the shipyards.

Times staff writers Tamara el-Khoury and Justin Cook contributed to this report.