Island Super Market suffers major damages from fire

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 13, No. 40            October 30, 2003

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Firefighters and volunteers battle blaze at rear of Island Super Market
Smoke pours out of Island Super Market

A major fire had island traffic bottlenecked for hours last Thursday as San Pedro firefighters fought a smoldering blaze at the Island Super Market, located on Coconut Drive in San Pedro Town.

    Reportedly, at 6:11 a.m. on Thursday, October 23rd, 2003, information was received at the San Pedro Fire and Police Departments that the Island Super Market was on fire. Personnel were dispatched to the scene and upon their arrival witnessed smoke exiting from the rear section on the west side of the building. The shutters covering the store's large showcase windows were forced opened for entry and it was observed that it was the storeroom that was engulfed in flames.

    According to the report by San Pedro Police, the two-flat cement building measures 100 by 150 feet, with an upper flat constructed out of lumber. Extensive damage occurred to the stock inside the store, but the exact value was not yet determined. The building is insured with Atlantic Insurance Company for the sum of $3 million. Ahmad Harmouch, 33, businessman of Boca del Rio Area, San Pedro Town is the owner of the building and the business.

    Speaking with Chief Henry Baizar of the National Fire Service, it was learned that the source of the ignition is yet to be determined. Electrical malfunction and spontaneous combustion were ruled out in the investigation. He further stated that based on their findings, it was estimated that the fire had started shortly before the time it was reported since the temperature had not built up to the point where it was permanently damaging the window glass. It was determined that the fire started inside a specific section of the warehouse side of the building. Chief Baizar added that access could have been gained to that part of the building, but that there was no evidence or proof of arson as yet. An official statement should be forthcoming in the next couple of days. The warehouse contents were completely destroyed by fire; the retail store was heavily damaged by water and smoke. The structure and the residential flat on the top of the building suffered minimal damage.

    According to Officer-in-Charge Jerome Garcia of the San Pedro Fire Department, firefighters were able to access hydrant water and also used seawater to fight the blaze. He stated that the fire was a smoldering blaze with no large flames but rather an abundance of heavy smoke. Two firefighters with breathing apparatus were sent into the building to determine the fire's exact location and how best to fight it. The local firefighters' efforts were thwarted though, due to a minimum supply of apparatus and tanks. The Officer-in-Charge stated that by 7:30 a.m. he was forced to call the National Fire Service for assistance. The Belize Defense Force immediately transported six firefighters and additional breathing apparatus from Belize City to the island. After Chief Baizar arrived on the scene, at approximately 9:00 a.m., he called for another team of firefighters to be sent to San Pedro to assist. It took nearly nine hours for the fire to be extinguished. At approximately 11:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 25th, SP firefighters were called out to the scene again because the blaze had rekindled but it was extinguished a short while later. An investigation into the source of the fire continued as of press time.

    Several important issues arose from this type of major fire, such as the fact that the Officer-in-Charge of the island fire department lives at the south end of the island in the DFC Housing Area, and has no form of transportation aside from a bicycle. More alarming than this remote location is the fact that he does not have telephone service but relies on a radio for communication that provides inadequate signal anywhere south of the Island Super Market. These concerns were brought to the attention of the National Fire Chief who insisted he had contacted his ministry (Emergency Management) and the Ministry of Home Affairs regarding the situation and would do so again. He stated that the remote housing problem would be solved when the new municipal building behind the SP fire station is completed, but that this project seemed to be taking longer than expected. Repeated attempts by The San Pedro Sun to contact these ministries for some explanations resulted in no response.

    Another concern raised while witnessing the fire was the fact that a large crowd was able to wander aimlessly around and sometimes through the fire scene. Countless observers were allowed to breathe, without warning, smoke containing any number of burning gases (chlorine, freon, etc.), chemicals and/or construction materials (insulation, Styrofoam, etc.). It was confirmed by this newspaper that there were very real possibilities of explosions taking place during this fire due to the number of aerosol cans and combustible materials contained inside the building, yet approximately 100 people stood close by.

    In response to this information, Chief Baizar explained that simulation exercises involving personnel from a variety of departments (fire, police, traffic, water, electricity, etc.) were performed on a regular basis to practice the established protocol to follow in these situations. (This type of monthly activity in San Pedro could not be verified.) He stated that he would schedule a meeting of these San Pedro departments for early next month to review the procedures and precautions to take during future emergencies.

    At the request of this newspaper, SP Officer-in-Charge Jerome Garcia submitted a list of items needed by local firefighters. The list includes: protective clothing (from head to toe) and long-range communication devices for volunteer firemen (beepers, radios or walkie-talkies). 

    A number of Ambergris Caye residents have began a petition to demand more assistance from the Government of Belize to aid in this dilemma. The document refers to the lack of adequate facilities and equipment, which prevent our police and fire departments from responding quickly to emergencies. It states that it is high time to look into the disgraceful and dangerous situations taking place in Belize's leading tourist destination before it is too late.
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