By Sunday afternoon, what was once was an historic cigar factory in Palmetto Beach that some hoped to turn into housing was cleared away after an early morning fire destroyed the building, according to Tampa Fire Rescue.
“The building was completely cleared away and we are walking around looking right now,” Mike Zurla, a fire investigation supervisor for Tampa Fire Rescue, said shortly after 3:30 p.m. Sunday. “We haven’t found any bodies yet.”
The cause of the fire at 201 N 26th St. is still being investigated, Zurla said. But because of the level of destruction, it will take days, if ever, to make a determination, he said.
Those who live near the V. Guerrieri Cigar Factory, also known as La Mega, knew something was burning sometime after midnight Sunday.
That’s when Andrea Garibaldi said her mother called her to come outside.
The factory stood directly across the street from their home at 2422 Clark St.
“It started as a small fire on one side of the building,” Garibaldi said around noon Sunday as Tampa firefighters worked to put out the remaining hotspots. “In two or three seconds, it erupted. We could feel the heat.”
The fire was so intense, Garibaldi said residents were asked to leave their homes.
“I got back sometime this morning,” she said. “It was still smouldering.”
Around the corner, Maria Baca said she stood and watched as the sky was “raining fire.”
The factory was built in 1899 in Tampa’s Palmetto Beach neighborhood, which is a few miles east of downtown Tampa and just south of Ybor City.
County records show the building is owned by 201 Twenty-Sixth Street North LLC in Atlanta, Georgia. The owners could not be reached for comment.
Firefighters responded to the fire at 12:32 a.m. and had it under control shortly after 2 a.m., fire rescue officials said.
The building suffered heavy damage to the first, second and third floors before it collapsed early Sunday morning, according to Tampa Fire Rescue.
Shortly after noon Sunday, workers were spraying water from fire trucks on the still-smouldering structure.
“It is too dangerous to send anyone in right now to conduct an investigation,” Zurla said as firefighters poured water on the pile of charred timbers and bricks. “We have to get it safe before anyone can go in.”
Several residents said that the vacant building had caught on fire before, a fact that Zurla could not immediately confirm from the scene. The Tribune reported previously that there was a fire at the building in 2000.
The 27,000-square-foot structure, which had an estimated value of $284,000, once housed hundreds of workers, who rolled cigars there. It was sold in 2000 by cigar maker Joe Guerrieri, creator of the World War II-era nickle cigar. It quickly became a neighborhood albatross and in 2006 was the subject of plans to turn it into loft apartments.
Despite becoming a place where the homeless sometimes congregated, the building was the cornerstone of the Palmetto Beach Historic District, which was created in 2012.