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Flames consume Robert E. Lee Elementary in Tampa Heights (w/video)

Robert E. Lee Elementary School, the subject of controversy lately because of its namesake, caught fire Tuesday night. [Courtesy of Renee King]
Published Sep. 13, 2017

TAMPA — Robert E. Lee Elementary School is no more.

The oldest magnet school in Hillsborough County, which some school board members were trying to rename as part of a nationwide movement to remove Confederate symbols, burned down on Tuesday night as hundreds of residents watched and children cried.

"Lord have mercy, Jesus," said Erica Claitt, whose 9-year-old niece attended the school until recently. "It's a historical school."

The school at 305 E Columbus Dr. was built in 1906 and was now called the Lee Elementary Magnet School of World Studies and Technology. Its 330 students and 49 staffers haven't been in school this week because all Hillsborough County schools were closed in advance of Hurricane Irma.

The school was not used as a shelter during Irma, which residents said knocked out power in the surrounding neighborhoods. Power was restored Tuesday evening, residents said, then they saw smoke coming from the roof and fire engines racing in.

The fire was reported at 6:46 p.m., and firefighters were on scene five minutes later. The neighborhoods soon lost power again.

UPDATE: District keeping Lee students together and the investigation continues

Crowds gathered for blocks around and watched firefighters try to tamp down the blaze from afar. They set up three water cannons on the ground and used ladder trucks to aim two more from above.

Flames could be seen shooting out of the second floor windows of the three-story building as streams of water were poured onto the crumbling roof, which was brand-new. The building also has hardwood floors, adding to the kindling.

"I'm in awe," said Bia Harris, who was house-sitting for a friend across Columbus Drive. "It's incredible. Devastating, but incredible."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hillsborough to move slowly on name change for school honoring Robert E. Lee

Tampa Fire Rescue spokesman Jason Penny said the first firefighters to arrive quickly called in more units.

"When firefighters arrived, they found heavy smoke and flames coming out of the north side roof of the building," he said. "They started fighting the fire and the incident commander immediately decided that they needed to call a second alarm to bring in more units — in particular, aerial units, because this is a three-story, brick building."

More fire units responded. But then the roof collapsed on the northeast side of the building, and the incident commander decided to pull back the firefighters and go into "defensive" mode to contain the blaze.

Penny said the fire did not appear to be suspicious, but the investigation had not yet started.

Tarance LeNoir, a teacher and a candidate last year for Hillsborough County School Board, was among those watching the blaze.

"I'm just concerned about all the children," he said. "They already missed school (for Hurricane Irma) and now they'll have to be displaced again."

The fire began a few hours after district leaders, who had hoped to reopen schools this week, decided they couldn't be ready until Monday. Now, on top of restarting classes for the nation's eighth-largest school district, they will need to figure out where to send Lee's students.

"We have investigators on scene, the fire marshal," Penny said, "but I want to make something very, very clear — because I know that in our atmosphere this can be contentious — but indications now have nothing to do with the name of this school."

He said investigators were considering whether the fire could be linked to restoration of electrical power in the area.

The school district's history of the building said it was built in 1906 by neighborhood volunteers. It was called Michigan Avenue Grammar School then, but renamed for the Confederacy's most famous general in 1943, when the street was renamed Columbus Drive. It became Hillsborough's first magnet school in 1993 with a focus on technology. The world studies program was added in 2008.

Claitt, like many in Tampa, was aware of the controversy surrounding the name.

"It was named after an inappropriate person," she said. "It should have been changed years ago."

But the real problem, she realized, was more immediate: "Children need an education."

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