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Dreams go up in smoke at Palm Harbor storage facility

Dan Copeland says the remains of his beloved 36-foot 2008 Holiday Rambler lies third from the left after being incinerated in a three-alarm fire that broke out just after midnight. The blaze destroyed a 23,300-square-foot facility used to store RVs, boats and cars at Florida West Covered Storage in Palm Harbor. Copeland and his wife, Martha, owned their coach for four years and have traveled to Michigan and the north Georgia area in it.
Published Mar. 27, 2014

PALM HARBOR — Dan Ferrans and his wife, Sue, were looking forward to what they called "the dream" — retiring within the next three years and venturing on road trips in their 38-foot Damon Challenger RV.

The Palm Harbor couple kept their RV at Florida West Covered Storage, a place equipped with security cameras, key pad entrances and tall black gates where others also sheltered the incarnations of their dreams: big boats, babied classic cars, luxurious recreational vehicles.

Dan and Sue thought their RV was safe.

But their dream went up in flames early Wednesday when a three-alarm blaze destroyed a 23,200-square-foot storage facility that stored their RV, along with more than 40 other RVs, cars and boats. Fire officials estimate the damage is in the millions of dollars.

The dream "may be a nightmare now," Ferrans said Wednesday morning as he looked at the melted metal roof draped over the charred frames of the vehicles and boats. Occasional puffs of smoke still belched from underneath.

The cause of the blaze remained a mystery Wednesday as Palm Harbor Fire Rescue, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and a state fire marshal investigated. Officials were also planning to review footage from the facility's video cameras, said Palm Harbor Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Bob Markford.

About 12:38 a.m. Wednesday, firefighters received two calls reporting a fire and several explosions at the Florida West facility at 4470 Alt. U.S. 19. During the roughly two hours it took to bring the blaze under control, fire crews reported explosions and multiple fires, likely from the full gas tanks inside many of the vehicles.

Firefighters were concerned that strong northwest winds would spread the flames to another storage building on the property, south of Klosterman Road and west of the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club. About four dozen firefighters from different agencies, including Clearwater and Tarpon Springs fire rescues, responded to the fire.

"It was a little risky for our guys because the wind was blowing so hard," Markford said.

No injuries were reported.

On Wednesday morning, firefighters hosed down the building, now a mangled heap of metal, as it continued to smolder. Heavy machinery was expected to arrive today to remove the roof so that firefighters could reach and extinguish the remaining hot spots, Markford said.

Among the destroyed property: a 30-foot Mako boat, a 1964 Pontiac and an Impala from the 1950s. Vehicles in a nearby warehouse sustained some minor damage, including bubbled paint, from the radiant heat emanating from Wednesday's fire, Markford said. The two other storage buildings on the property were not damaged.

Florida West owner Jim Godez said Wednesday his insurance would cover damage to the facility, but not to the individual vehicles. It was unknown if all the individuals had their own insurance.

Godez declined further comment, saying he was busy answering property owners' phone calls. He bought the storage facility in 2012, records show.

By sunrise Wednesday, several property owners had arrived at the facility, its entrance taped off with yellow crime scene tape.

Among them was Eileen McDonald of Palm Harbor, who cried as she watched the destruction from outside the black gates. She and her husband lost a 34-foot RV worth about $100,000 that they had purchased a year ago. They also lost camping equipment inside it — tents, tables, lanterns and a grill — that they had used with their children on camping trips through the years.

Since buying the RV, the McDonalds have used it to travel to Disney World, Fort De Soto Park and Tallahassee.

"It is just starting to sink in," said Eileen's husband, Duncan McDonald. "Twenty-five years of camping supplies and memories gone in our 1-year-old dream RV."

Sandy Wood and her husband, Chuck, also lost an RV. They bought the 39-foot vehicle for about $100,000 in January and planned to use it to travel between their Holiday home and Charleston, S.C., where Chuck has monthly medical appointments. "In the grand scheme of things," she said, "it's just stuff."

For the past 12 years, Dunedin residents Amanda Cantonis and her husband, Chris, have stored their 30-foot Mako boat in the Florida West facility. They were among the first to arrive early Wednesday after seeing the fire on TV.

"It's sad," Cantonis said. "There's a lot of people's memories and happy times and sad times that are gone."

Times staff researcher Natalie A. Watson contributed to this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com or (727)445-4157. On Twitter: @lauracmorel.

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