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2 SJC fire employees suspended over fire response

Firefighters left after initial response before fire destroyed 20 condominiums

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – One day after a massive fire destroyed 20 condominiums in Ponte Vedra Beach, St. Johns County Fire-Rescue officials placed two employees on administrative leave after an investigation of initial response to reports of smoke in the area.

No one was seriously hurt Monday, but 30 people living in one building of the Belleza Condominiums were forced to find other places to stay.

While the investigation into the cause of the fire continues, a review of the initial 911 calls reporting smoke in area promoted the suspensions.

A woman who lived in the complex on Timberwalk Court in Ponte Vedra Beach called 911 three times. She told News4Jax on Monday that she was concerned her calls weren't taken seriously.

UNCUT AUDIO: Woman's first calls 911 |  More callers report fire 

St. Johns County Fire Rescue released the 911 calls Tuesday, which show the woman first called 911 at 4:05 a.m. to report that she smelled smoke when walking her dog. She called back at 4:22.

"I'm sorry, but I didn't see any firemen and, basically, I'm still smelling the smoke out there," she told the operator at 4:22 a.m.

At 4:51 a.m., she called again, holding up the phone so the operator could hear the fire alarm going off.

The Fire Department told News4Jax that firefighters were dispatched to the complex after the first call, but found no fire. Shortly before 5 a.m., firefighters returned to find intense flames and smoke coming from Building 100.

The woman, who asked not to be identified except by her first name, Laura, said the situation didn't have to get as bad as it did.

"They said they came out and checked and it was OK and I said, 'OK, if there's a fire, there's going to be a problem,' because I felt they were blowing me off," Laura said. "We got unit owners to go from door-to-door and knock on them and get people out. There wasn't any help. We were doing all the work."

At that point, she said, fire was tearing through the building directly across from her condo with firefighters just getting to the scene. 

"I think if the firemen had come out immediately when they were called and I smelled something burning and investigated the source of that, I think the building could have been saved," Laura said.

A SJCFR official said Tuesday that he stands by their initial statement on what happened.

SJCFR said there have been three inspections of the complex's sprinkler system by the contractor who installed them -- in 2009, 2010 and 2012.The contractor is Wayne Automatic Fire Sprinklers of Jacksonville.

The way the process works, Wayne Sprinklers does the inspections, and if deficiencies are found, they are reported to the fire marshal. The fire marshal would then check to make sure the problems have been corrected. No deficiencies were found in those inspections.

St. Johns County Fire Rescue Capt. Jeremy Robshaw said there were no problems with the sprinklers during the fire Monday morning. They put out plenty of water.

The last time the fire marshal was at Belleza was in 2012. A horn strobe fire alarm malfunctioned. It was fixed, and the repairs were confirmed by the fire marshal.

According to Robshaw, everyone in the Timberwalk Court complex got out of the building safely before firefighters arrived.

Robshaw said when crews initially responded, they might not have smelled smoke because of how many condominiums there are.

"There's a lot of buildings in this area," Robshaw said. "At that point, they did not smell smoke. They did what they could at the time. Unfortunately, it did not start showing smoke at the time."

Robshaw said it would be speculation to say whether firefighters could have prevented the blaze from destroying the building if they'd spotted the smoke on their first response.

On that first visit, firefighters weren't focusing on the building where the fire turned out to be, even though Laura said she provided the building number to dispatch.

A team of Red Cross volunteers responded to the fire. Volunteers met with families to provide emergency needs like food, clothing, temporary lodging and other necessities. A response vehicle was also deployed to help residents and responders with hydration.

The Red Cross said volunteers helped 15 families, a total of 30 people, after the fire and will continue to work with displaced residents throughout the week.

"We have several families that we're trying to reach out to that are out of town, so obviously, when those families return back into town, we'll need to assist them as well," Red Cross spokeswoman Christian Smith said.

According to Robshaw, a resident and a firefighter suffered minor injuries from the fire. The resident was treated at the scene. The firefighter was transported as a precaution for heat-related overexertion and was later released.

Firefighters from the Jacksonville and Jacksonville Beach worked with SJCFR to fight the fire. The state fire marshal will also be investigating the fire.