35ºF

Residents picking up the pieces after massive condo fire

Over 20 units destroyed in Ponte Vedra fire

PONTE VEDRA, Fla. – Residents got to go back inside their homes Wednesday for the first time to salvage what they could after a massive fire tore through a Ponte Vedra apartment complex this week.

According to officials, 20 units caught fire at the Belleza Condominiums before dawn Monday morning, which left a firefighter and a resident with minor injuries and damage estimated to be several million dollars.

It's been a tough couple of days for residents, and many of them, like Marlene Vincent, are frustrated.

"I would say it is post-traumatic stress. The same thing people go through in war," Vincent said.

Vincent was devastated when flames ripped through her condo, and she's been out of a home since early Monday morning. 

photo

"People need to get together, and they should really get together and stay strong and know that we are going to handle it as well as we can," Vincent said.

Aside from her devastation and frustration, Vincent is concerned about the way St. Johns County Fire Rescuers responded, especially after finding out another woman in the complex called 911 to report smoke, and complained firefighters didn't do anything about it.

About 45 minutes after those 911 calls, 20 units in the complex were swallowed up by huge flames.

"Every second counts. It is just like when somebody has a medical problem. Timing is everything. You have to get there," Vincent said.

Tuesday officials put two Fire Department employees on paid administrative leave as they look into the complaints. The department isn't saying who, but an internal investigation into the initial response is underway.

The fire marshal is still trying to find out what caused the fire.

Howard White, the county's chief building official, said they're still pulling records about the complex, which was built as apartments in the early 1990s and converted into condos about 10 years ago.

Permits show sprinkler systems and fire alarms were installed during the transition.

Meanwhile neighbors like Patty Mickens, with Lazzara Orthodontics, are trying to help those who lost their homes and their belongings.

"We have bathing suits for kids, lots of T-shirts, women's clothing, shirts and shorts," Mickens said.

Mickens lives in the complex and organized a donation drive at her orthodontics office.

"They are going to need absolutely everything, so we are collecting anything," she said.

Co-workers like Kristen Cochran, patients and even strangers are pitching in.

"It is a great community here and whenever anyone is in need, people are more than willing to jump on it and help out doing whatever they can," Cochran said.

They're still accepting donations at that orthodontics office, searching for clothes, bedding, toiletries and gift cards.

People can drop off donations until Friday at Lazzara Orthodontics, at 436 Jacksonville Drive, Jacksonville Beach, Florida 32250.

In addition to the orthodontics office, people wanting to donate to the families who lost their condos in the fire can come to the complex at 200 Boardwalk Drive in Ponte Vedra Beach and head to the clubhouse. The gates opened at 9 a.m. Thursday.

Belleza's manager, Lynn Salcedo, is asking for donations of gift cards to the families affected instead of bulky items. She reminds that most of the affected families don't have a home to store these donations. 

There are six children (under 10), seven teens, 21 adults and seven senior citizens affected.