Advertisement
  1. News

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."

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Reynaldo Figueroa-Sanabria, charged with murder in the stabbing deaths of John Travlos and Germana Morin aboard Travlos' houseboat in 2013, takes the stand in his own defense Tuesday. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
    Reynaldo Figueroa-Sanabria, accused of killing two aboard a houseboat in 2013, told a different version of the same story his girlfriend told. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
  2. Check tampabay.com for the latest breaking news and updates. Tampa Bay Times
    One of the messages included a picture of a pellet gun, Tampa police said.
  3. The lobby bar at the Current Hotel on Rocky Point in Tampa serves eclectic cocktails and locally brewed coffee. SARA DINATALE  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Take a look inside Tampa Bay’s newest boutique hotel.
  4. Adjunct faculty at St. Petersburg College voted to unionize Tuesday, joining thousands of other adjuncts across Florida who are fighting for better working conditions and pay. [Times]
    The employees are the seventh group in Florida to join Service Employees International Union in recent yeas as it pushes for investment in the state’s higher education institutions.
  5. A pauper's cemetery was established at the northeast corner of property now occupied by King High School in Tampa, location of the school gymnasium (tall building at top left) and the main parking lot. DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Conflicting versions emerge of where Ridgewood Cemetery was located. One thing is certain: It was ignored or forgotten.
  6. The University of South Florida ranked ahead of UCF, FIU and FAU in the U.S. News & World Report's Global University Rankings. [USF handout]
    The University of Florida finished 105th, while USF came in at 310. Harvard led the world.
  7. An anti-government protester raises his hands during clashes with police in Santiago, Chile, Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019. The government said Tuesday that 15 people have died in five days of rioting, arson and violent clashes that were sparked by a hike in subway fares and have almost paralyzed the country. RODRIGO ABD  |  AP
    Riot police used tear gas and streams of water to break up marches by rock-throwing demonstrators in several streets of Santiago on Tuesday.
  8. The Florida Bar wants the state’s highest court to immediately suspend the law license of Tampa attorney Jose Angel Toledo, ex-husband of state Rep. Jackie Toledo. FACEBOOK PAGE  |  Su Abogado Hispano
    José Angel Toledo, ex-husband of state Rep. Jackie Toledo, abandoned his law practice, according to the petition from the Florida Bar.
  9. West Palm Beach police spokeswoman Molly Anderson said during a news conference on Tuesday that Department of Homeland Security agents arrested Rudelmiro Santizo Perez on Monday in Houston as he tried to flee to Guatemala. West Palm Beach Police Department/Facebook
    Police began investigating on Oct. 3 when a hidden camera was found inside an employee bathroom at St. Mary’s Medical Center.
  10. This Monday, Oct. 21, 2019, photo shows the graded dirt surface where sod will be placed in November inside what will be the stadium for David Beckham’s Inter Miami MLS soccer team that opens its inaugural season in 2020 at the site of the former Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. TIM REYNOLDS  |  AP
    Construction is on schedule, with all signals pointing toward everything being ready for the team’s first home match that’s likely to come in March.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement