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Date of Issue: April 23, 2008

Fire destroys bayside home

Photo by Arthur Valadie

Click the links below to view Arthur Valadie movies about the fire.
A firefighter works at the scene of a five-engine fire in Holmes Beach early April 17. Islander Photo: Bonner Joy

The sun came up bright on the bay April 17 to reveal the dark smoke that remained over 58th Street in Holmes Beach.

And the ash.

And the debris.

And the water.

And the firefighters.

And standing just inside the yellow ribbon of tape ringing her blackened home in the 500 block of 58th Street, Pa Davis stood with a duffle bag over her shoulder and a clipboard in her right hand. She assessed the damage.

“I have to go back in to find my wedding rings,” she said, quietly, just hours after an accidental fire ravaged her waterfront home.

Nearby, Deputy Fire Marshal Kurt Lathrop also assessed the damage, called into 911 shortly after 2 a.m. April 17.

A team of West Manatee Fire Rescue firefighters who had responded to the call also saw dawn come up behind the charred home on the bay.

It was a long morning.

And a big fire.


Sounding the alarm

Pa Davis, 39, and her husband, Kent, 52, had been sleeping in the one-story, concrete block home they moved into about sixyears ago, after selling their Siam Garden Resort in Anna Maria.

Sometime after 2 a.m., the home’s smoke detectors - newer, wired, inter-connected detectors - sounded, and not because of a dying battery.

The living room was cloudy with smoke. Kent felt the heat on the door to his garage - the doorknob was hot to the touch. He heard crackling and popping inside the garage - and a “violent” sound that was the roar of the fire.

The couple, still in their nightclothes, fled the home to find heavy black smoke and flames outside and to call 911 on a cell phone.

For a few scary moments, Pa and Kent were separated in the darkness. She went toward the neighbor she knows best on the northside, he ran up the street. Both were calling out for help.

Pa frantically sought help next door when the dispatcher couldn’t understand her, and Arlene Byrne helped with making that emergency call and the many questions that followed from the dispatch operator.

Diane Fernandez, across the canal, said she was awakened by a woman’s cries for help. Then she smelled smoke. She woke husband John, who called directly to HBPD at 2:07 a.m.

Meanwhile, other neighbors too were calling emergency numbers, to request aid as the fire pushed through the roof and triggered the explosion of a 250-gallon propane tank next to the garage.

It shook the neighborhood.

“It just let go,” Lathrop said of the tank. “Within a minute, what was in it was gone.”


Battling the blaze

Manatee County’s Emergency Communications Center dispatched WMFR to 58th Street at 2:22 a.m., according to Lathrop.

WMFR’s log showed the first fire truck arrived at 2:23 a.m. The first firefighters on the scene reported “the garage and roof completely involved in fire,” Lathrop said.

Additional apparatus arrived, three more WMFR trucks, including the district’s ladder truck that was used to spray water down on the roof, and then a truck from Longboat Key Fire Department.

“When our guys got there it was already through the roof,” WMFR Chief Andy Price said. “They got a line out quick, but I think the fire had been in the attic for a while before it was detected.”

The fire was so intense WMFR commanders feared a collapse and ordered firefighters to “go into defensive mode,” said Lathrop. That meant emergency workers had to wage their battle outside the home.

“Based on eminent collapse, it was nobody inside, everybody outside,” Lathrop said.

No commander wants “to tell a wife her husband died for something to be bulldozed,” Lathrop said.

Because of wind pushing from the bay, smoke and debris, firefighters could not attack directly from the front of the property, with an estimated value of about $1.145 million.

The back of the structure faced the water, where firefighters had stretched hoses from a fire truck parked in Byrne’s driveway over a fence, through a hedge and along the bayside of the home. The truck holds about 750 gallons of water.

Firefighters on another truck stretched a hose about 1,300 feet to the nearest hydrant, located on 56th Street near Catchers Marina. Manatee County water lines on side streets such as 58th Street cannot accommodate hydrants.

“The county has said you can’t put a hydrant on anything less than a six-inch line,” Price said. The 58th Street water line is about two-inches in diameter.

Numerous other emergency officials assisted at the fire, including Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach police officers, Manatee County Sheriff’s Office deputies, Manatee County Emergency Medical Services, Florida Power & Light and Suburban Gas.

Law enforcement officers secured the area, as well as assisted in the investigation. EMS provided medical services to a firefighter who inhaled some smoke. FP&L dealt with electrical wires that snapped from a pole during the firefighting. Suburban Gas was called upon to examine the propane tank that exploded.

WMFR reserve firefighters also assisted at the scene. “We were full of reserves,” Price said.

Lathrop said WMFR officials declared the “situation under control” at 3:56 a.m.


Witnessing the loss

Witnesses said they felt helpless as they watched fire destroy the home. Inside was Kent’s collection of rare and antique books, as well as his own almost-completed manuscript, and Pa’s collection of antiques and treasured items from her native Thailand.

“When I got out, I saw the house in flames,” said neighbor Carol Yavalar. “The whole thing was in flames, engulfed in flames. It was just a raging fire.”

The emergency prompted some residents to wonder aloud, “What would happen if this was September and the bridge closed?”

The Anna Maria Island Bridge on Manatee Avenue/State Road 64 will be closed to vehicles for about 45 days beginning in late September for a major rehabilitation. During that time, traffic will be detoured to the Cortez Bridge in Bradenton Beach.

Officials initially raised concerns about getting emergency vehicles to and from the Island during the bridge closure. Those concerns prompted the Florida Department of Transportation to offer some financial assistance to boost personnel and equipment on the Island. WMFR plans to put an additional firefighting crew in the Holmes Beach station during the closure.

Lathrop said when there’s little traffic, the bridge closure won’t impede emergency vehicles bound for the Island from WMFR’s station on Cortez Road or from Longboat Key.

Still officials remain concerned about emergency traffic during the shut down, not at 2 a.m., but at 9 a.m. during the commutes.

Some witnesses also wondered whether firefighters got water to the scene soon enough, specifically raising concerns about the distance to the hydrant.

One witness said not only was the hydrant too far away, but the pressure was too low. “I heard shouts over a loudspeaker, ‘We have no water, there’s no water.’”

Lathrop, referring to the lack of hydrants in some areas, said, “It’s a problem. We like to have them every 800 feet.”

But the problem is due to the fact that some existing county water lines on the Island and also on the mainland cannot accommodate fire hydrants.

Larger water lines are required in new subdivisions, which aren’t expected any time soon on Anna Maria Island, but existing lines will only get replaced over time.

“There’s a master plan to upgrade over the next 20 years,” Price said. “But there’s quite a bit of infrastructure.… The county has been good in trying to correct that, but it’s not cheap.”

Price added that in the 58th Street fire, water was not the factor.

The wind was.

“There was nothing they could do to save the structure,” Price said. “I knew as soon as I got there it was a total loss.… The fire was well involved before it set off the smoke detectors, too well involved. It was through the roof when we got the call. It was 40 feet in the air when I got there.”

Wind carried the fire from the garage into the crawl space between ceiling and roof, where it probably burned for a while without trigging the smoke alarms, Price said.

“You could have a raging fire above this ceiling and not know it,” the chief said, seated late April 17 at his desk in his office at Station No. 1 in Holmes Beach, just blocks from the Davis home. “I’ve seen it. And the wind kindles the fire like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Winds off the water really pushed that fire,” Lathrop said.

In the daylight, the devastation seemed even more apparent. The Mercedes in the garage looked like crackled junkyard metal. The ground and nearby canal was littered with ash, “like from a volcano,” said one neighbor. Trees and shrubs were charred black.

“The radiant heat lit trees 150 feet away,” Price said.


Investigating the cause

With sun-up April 17, the homeowners didn’t yet know the cause of the fire.

But Pa had suspected it began in the garage.

Lathrop, as Pa shared her suspicion, could be seen in the distance taking photographs of the garage and the propane tank on the ground outside the garage.

Nearby, a team of firefighters readied to pack up a hose.

“We had a lot of fire on this one,” one firefighter said quietly. “It was going pretty good when we got here.”

By about 9:30 a.m., Lathrop had said the fire was accidental and it began in a garbage can in the garage, where a rag soaked with linseed oil had been discarded.

The oiled rag had been used to treat wood furniture on the deck the night before. The rag went into the garbage can at about 6:30 p.m. April 16. Eighthours later, the fire raged.

“We followed the burn pattern,” Lathrop said. “At this point, we are going to be calling the cause accidental.”

To those who don’t know fire, the cause seemed unbelievable, strange-but-true, a freak accident. By mid-day April 17 the “cause” caused a buzz about the Island.

But fire officials seemed unsurprised.

A balled-up rag soaked with linseed oil produces its own heat, Lathrop said. “Over time, it will get hot enough to go into open flame.”

WMFR Commission Chair Mike Mulyck recalled using linseed oil on a boat several years ago. He had tossed a collection of rags to the back of the boat. “I looked up, I had a nice bonfire on my boat.”

Price remembered a long ago fire at the current location of the Anchor Inn in which cleaning chemicals on rags caused a fire.

“All the rags were in a can and we traced the fire right back to there,” Price said. “A lot of people don’t realize what can happen.”


Beginning another day

With the fire extinguished, Kent and Pa Davis began the long assessment of loss and the even longer work to recover. (See separate story.)

The next day, smoke still scented the neighborhood and water collected in small pools in the streets.

Walkers passed by the home and shook their heads.

“It looks like it was fire-bombed,” said one woman.

Some nearby homeowners vowed to protect their family and property.

“I’m going out and buy a fire ladder,” Yavalar said.

“I think I took the batteries out of my smoke detectors,” said Holmes Beach resident Cynthia Gallagher. “So I’ve got to put them back.”

A block away from the scene, the sounds of Holmes Beach waking up could be heard - a car horn, a door slam.

Paul Harmon had watched the house burn on April 17.

On April 18, he walked Marina Drive about two blocks from the site and watched children playing as they headed across the city sports field for a school bus stop.

“It was a real tragedy,” Harmon said, “but it’s things and thank goodness they got life.”

And WMFR firefighters that morning were off at another house fire, this one in west Bradenton on First Avenue Drive Northwest, where the fire was brought under control within a few minutes.