Update on WINGS’ fire

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 18, No. 7            February 14, 2008

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The day after the fire, firemen picked their way through the rubble and debris thrown out through the gaping hole in the wall created to fight the fire more effectively.

Last week, residents awoke to a wall of smoke emanating from Wings Superstore located on Coconut Drive of San Pedro Town. A fire that began at approximately 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday night, February 5th, proved to have a will of its own to survive. And survive it did – all through the night and up to approximately 3:00 p.m. the following day.

    In reference to the report we made last week: “Wings burns through the night”, The San Pedro Sun contacted Belize’s Chief Fire Fighter Henry Baizer for comment on the suspected cause of fire and an official update on the blaze.

    Seven days after a fire destroyed the Wings Store/warehouse, officials investigating the matter have confirmed that an electrical fault near the switch panel was what triggered the blaze. On the night in question, the San Pedro Fire Department responded to a call which claimed that smoke was seen protruding through the upper floor of the Wings store. Seconds later, the sound of sirens rung through the streets and upon arrival San Pedro fire fighters put their skills to test. This test ultimately proved too much for the four brave volunteers of the local department. The thick black smoke created an impassable wall and no knowledge of the structure’s layout made it impossible for the officials to get to the source of the blaze.

    Henry Baizar, Fire Chief told The San Pedro Sun, “There was only one entrance into the building and that’s from the front. We could not come through the entrance of the building because the smoke came through all those stories of clothes and cloth and everything. The officer who was in charge out here decided that they needed assistance. He called me after one o’clock in the morning and we got in touch with the BDF [Belize Defense Force] and we got our first set of people out here with some more equipment just after two o’clock that morning.” A total of 15 volunteers were brought in but with only one entrance to the two story concrete building the task of gaining access proved difficult. Dozens of people stood and watched in awe, whilst some took the bull by the horns and formed bucket brigades and started securing neighboring homes. All through the night, the non stop smoke pouring out of the structure suffocated all those that were in the vicinity. After countless futile tries at gaining access through the door, men had to forcibly remove the burglar bars off of the East windows so as to hose the blaze down. It wasn’t up until midday on Wednesday that the weary officials called in “bigger guns” and had bull dozers break down the wall on the East and South sides in an attempt to access the flames.

    The air was thick with exasperating smoke for about twelve to fourteen hours until the blaze was fully extinguished. Shortly after midday, with the help of the BDF volunteers, the fire was contained with the use of heavy machinery to break down the rear building wall and gain entrance to the source. Only one entry point, being the entrance to the store, proved to be one of the firefighters’ biggest challenges. However, the intensity of the fire coupled with lack of equipment were Baizer’s other two concerns, “With only two trucks and four men, there is no way they could have controlled a fire of such magnitude. Even though our fighters had the gear, the heat built up to over 200 degrees Fahrenheit. We worked with what we had and I believe we did well to get everything under control. We had to resort to heavy machinery for an entry and we controlled it from there.”

    When the blaze continued through the night, the bucket brigade helped in dousing neighboring house that might have gone up in flames as well. This brought many concerns as to Building Codes executed on San Pedro Town. Consultant for the San Pedro Town Council’s Ambergris Caye Local Building Authority Omar Mitchell stated that the speed of development on the island is three or four times higher than what it is countrywide. Because of this, Mitchell states that in this arena, political colors, friendships or families no longer make a difference. “Our responsibility is for the entire community. Construction will have an impact on everyone’s lives not just the investors and owners but everyone. Because of some seawalls constructed, San Pedro has lost precious beaches,” he commented.

    Because of the density of development, some requirements will now be applied in respect to building codes. Some requirements will include a closer look at the proximity of one building to the next, the same applies to the construction of piers. No thatch will be authorized for use within the down town boundaries, “Some people believe that these changes were made to affect them. In reality, because of the potential of fires, we are applying these changes for the benefit and safety of all residents of the island.” Other codes will include proper exit facilities which will include spaces for the handicapped as well as the inclusion of fire suppression systems both indoors and on the grounds. “Having these systems in place will contain the fire until the fire department arrives to assist and fight the blaze,” Mitchell ended.

    As for the Wings fire, The Sun asked Baizer on the total estimated damages to the building but he was unable to provide that information. The Sun tried to contact the Wings Director, Arun Hotchandandi for comment on their total estimate damage, but he was also unavailable for comment.

    Today, the Wings staff has been picking up the pieces of the store but rubble and debris can still be seen. The upper floor was completely destroyed by fire whilst the downstairs was partially scorched and destroyed by water. What used to be a popular shopping spot for most of us in San Pedro, has transformed itself into a lonesome sight for most.

    The store and its contents were insured with RFG Insurance Company for an undisclosed amount of money. That company has brought in a special investigator to look into the incident. Mitchell commented that an investigation by ACLBA declared the Wings building structurally sound.

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