Tampa school fire caused by hurricane, investigators say

Image 1 of 8

Three weeks after a historic Tampa elementary school was gutted by fire, investigators have concluded the blaze can be blamed on power outages after Hurricane Irma.

It was late in the evening of September 12, when flames erupted from within the building known for decades as Robert E. Lee Elementary School.

Black smoke filled the sky over Columbus Drive as firefighters struggled to save the century-old building.

The blaze caused $3-million in damage and left the school unusable, a second blow to a community that had just weathered Hurricane Irma.  The school had been closed at the time, because of the storm.

Power had just been restored to the neighborhood.

That's probably what caused the fire, investigators announced Wednesday.

"After an extensive investigation, the investigator determined that the cause of the fire was accidental due to a failure in the building's electrical system likely caused by damage sustained during Hurricane Irma," the fire marshal's report summarized.

"Anytime that you have an event like that, there's always the possibility of that existing," Fire Marshal John Reed told FOX 13.  "Even as homeowners, we sometimes leave things energized or turned on when we leave our homes. So that's why we always try to put out that safety message: turn your power off, turn your gas off."

Students, teachers, and staff have been relocated to Lockhart Elementary School.

On Wednesday night, a fundraiser to rebuild the school and replenish the supplies of teachers was held at the Coopertail Brewing Company on East 2nd Avenue in Tampa. In addition to a raffle and silent auction, $1 from every beer sold will go to Lee Elementary and its teachers.

"A lot of the teachers already had their classrooms packed with supplies and ready for the school year, which then got entirely damaged by either water or fire damage," said Jessica Lindholm, the event coordinator.

Many of the people in attendance were proud parents of Lee Elementary School students who are eager to get the school rebuilt and reopened.

"I was shocked and obviously upset [by the fire]," said Tracey Dailey, whose son is a 3rd grader at Lee. "I traveled around when I was putting him in school to see what the best school would be and what the programs would be, and as many schools as we went to, when I walked into the building, it just felt like home."

Switching "homes" from Lee to Lockhart has been a big adjustment for the 300 students and staff, according to parents.

"It's been very chaotic, but also lovely. They did the best they could with the situation. We were very happy that we all got to stay together," said Jennifer Montgomery, a parent and former PTA President at Lee.

According to the fire marshal, the decision will be made by an engineer, Tampa Code Enforcement and the Hillsborough County School District on whether the school can be rebuilt. The damage is still being assessed.