PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Flames ripped through a condominium community in Ponte Vedra Beach Monday, destroying several residences and leaving at least 30 residents without homes while demanding a massive response from the St. Johns County Fire Department.
A woman walking her dog in the area about 4 a.m. called 911 to report smelling smoke, but St. Johns County firefighters did not find any fire. The woman called 911 again at 4:30 a.m. after seeing smoke from a building. This time firefighters arrived to find intense flames and smoke coming from Building 100 of the complex.
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.
She says her multiple calls were ignored by the fire department, leading to the extensive damage. She said she's calling for an investigation into the department's response.
"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.
According to St. Johns County Fire-Rescue Capt. Jeremy Robshaw, everyone in the Timberwalk Court complex got out of the building safely before firefighters arrived.
The condos are located between J. Turner Butler Boulevard and Marsh Landing Parkway.
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.
Robshaw said that firefighters will be investigating if anything could have been done differently.
"Certainly, that is something that we'll look into on our end," he said. "That has not happened at this point. Every call we go to, we evaluate the call and determine things that went well and things that we can improve on."
Marie Gunnery, who lives across from the complex, said she saw flames shooting up from the buildings.
"They did get all of the people out, which thank God is a blessing," Gunnery said.
Flames shot into the early-morning sky for hours. Gunnery said she's never seen anything like it.
"In the dark, it was real scary," Gunnery said.
Throughout the day, fire crews were still putting water on the flames.
"As they move debris, they'll find stuff that's still burning," Robshaw said. "While being careful to not disturb any evidence that may be there for the investigative process."
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.
After he returned to the scene, the firefighter said he was doing fine and was ready to get back to work.
With the heat index reaching into the triple digits, conditions at the fire were only made worse for crews on scene.
Officials with SJCFR said the biggest challenge was keeping firefighters cool. At the height of the fire's intensity, around 50 firefighters were on scene, with the heat significantly limiting their work time.
One resident who lost everything in the fire said he was able to get out of his condo OK, but then had to stand by and watch as his condo and so many others went up in flames.
"In all honesty, it was really hard to comprehend a lot of our valuable stuff was burned, and, you know, it's just one of those things that you just try to stay positive and be glad no one was hurt," Travis Wilcox said.
Travis and Jessica Wilcox and their dog were able to make it out after hearing the alarm go off, then smelling smoke. The couple grabbed their cellphones and wallets and went outside.
Roxanne Bowers, Travis Wilcox's aunt, drove up from Orlando after hearing about the fire. She said Travis and Jessica just got married two months ago.
"We pray together and we just thank God that we were here, all touching and feeling each other and we weren't talking about them in the past tense," Bowers said. "All that stuff can be replaced."
But it might be a difficult process. Bowers said she's not sure the couple had renters insurance.
Renters are not legally required to have insurance, even though most management firms and individual landlords strongly encourage them to carry the coverage, according to St. Johns Insurance Agency President Brooks Allen.
Without renters insurance, anything owned by the tenant is the tenant's responsibility to replace, Allen said.
The landlord is only responsible for the things permanently attached inside the condo, so the renter's furniture, housewares, electronics and other valuables are not covered, Allen said.
Renters insurance carries a lot of protection mechanisms. If displaced, it would help cover housing expenses while a home is being repaired or help pay for expenses in connection with getting a new home if the one being rented is destroyed, Allen said.
Now, many at Belleza are trying to figure out their next steps.
Gerry Dreiling's daughter is driving up from Tampa.
"Hopefully when she gets here with some help we can figure out what to do next, because we've got no place to stay," Dreiling said. "The clothes on our backs, that's it right now."
Beaches Animal Clinic offered a free week of boarding for the pets affected by the fire. If interested, owners should call 904-246-2045. They must have proof of residency and vaccine status.
Firefighters from the Jacksonville and Jacksonville Beach worked with SJCFR to fight the fire. The state fire marshal will also be investigating the fire.
"We had a heavy fire load upon arrival, so we were essentially playing catch up as soon as we got here. The location of the building, while one side gives us good access, the opposite side of the structure, essentially, there's very little access," Robshaw said. "The other building is very close to it, so it's difficult for us to get back there. That is where the main body of the fire was located. So really one of our primary objectives, initially, was accessing that area and then preventing the adjacent structure from becoming involved."
SJCFR believes by the end of the day at least 60 to 70 firefighters will have been a part of fighting this fire.
Investigators said it may take a while to figure out what started the blaze.
Investigators are also trying to figure out if the condominium's sprinkler system was working properly.