Little Havana fire displaces 48 residents

By Jean-Paul Renaud
Miami Bureau
Posted September 6 2003

The smell of smoke and the sounds of sirens woke Ismael Merchan from his sleep. When he perched over his window, he saw a sight difficult to believe.

About 3 a.m. Friday, Miami Fire Department officials said, the building next door to Merchan's Little Havana apartment building caught fire.

"It was as if someone had drenched the building with gasoline and then lit a match," Merchan said.

An hour later, flames had consumed the structure in the 2200 block of Southwest Ninth Street.

It took 22 fire trucks and 70 firefighters -- more than half of the city's firefighting strength -- 31/2 hours to put out the blaze, fire department officials said.

"The fire spread all over until it got to the roof," said Javier Antunez, one of the building's 48 residents. "I'm so happy that we were blessed with getting out of there on time."

No firefighters or residents were injured. Almost all of the building's 30 units sustained heavy fire, smoke and water damage, fire officials said.

The American Red Cross came to help the 48 homeless residents, but by then the charred structure's owners had already placed the residents in a nearby hotel.

"The owners told me to make sure they had room and board tonight and to feed them all day," said Robert Kelly McCammon, the building's property manager. "The real tragic part is that these people have lost everything."

McCammon said the management installed new smoke detectors and fire alarms throughout the 78-year-old building a month ago.

The air still smelled of smoke hours later as investigators searched through the rubble for clues to what started the fire. Some residents trickled in asking for personal belongings.

The Red Cross will help the families with shelter, food, clothing and necessary medication for the next three days, said the organization's spokeswoman, Britt Peemoller.

WTVJ-Ch. 6 contributed to this report.

Jean-Paul Renaud can be reached at [email protected] or 305-810-5001.