At 8:25 Thursday night the alarm sounded. Gulfport Hardware was burning. Gulfport Police Officers Zachary Mills and Christopher Randazzo in the vicinity arrived on the scene and saw smoke, flames, and heard pounding from inside. Gulfport firefighters arrived before the two minute mark. The firefighters on Engine 17 saw heavy smoke and flames pouring from the building. Inside, everyday household supplies like paint and lacquer turned into bombs as they exploded from the heat.
The pounding, Gulfport Sergeant Rob Burkhart said later, came from "heavy explosions" and not, as police and firefighters feared, the owner of Gulfport Hardware, whose truck was parked outside the popular hardware store.
"They went into defensive attack," Gulfport Fire Chief Jim Marenkovic said after over 60 firefighters from Gulfport, Saint Petersburg, South Pasadena and Lealman put out the blaze over three hours later.
The fire, Marenkovic said, started inside Gulfport Hardware. Both adjacent shops, Gulfport Dive and Newton Photography, sustained smoke and water damage only. Marenkovic did not believe any other shops in the strip mall in the 5000 block of Gulfport Boulevard suffered damage.
Although firefighters quickly extinguished the main blaze, Marenkovic told the Gabber the prolonged firefighting focused on the rear of the building and the roof.
"We couldn't make access to the heart of it, where it was," he said. Firefighters stayed until "we were sure it wouldn't flare up again."
As the firefighters traded off aiming the hose at the building, smoke continued to billow from the ceiling and parts of the building flared and sparked. Using a technique firefighters called a "surround and drown," firefighters attacked the blaze from the front and the top. A hook and ladder truck pumped 1,000 gallons a minute onto the roof while the hose on the ground – manned by at least three firefighters – shot 300 gallons per minute into the storefront. One firefighter explained that the sagging roof made engine companies reluctant to send firefighters inside the building. Firefighters watched the smoke and used thermal imaging devices to determine not only the location of the fire but if it was out.
The presence of his truck led some to believe the owner, David Cretella, could be inside the building.
"It's terrible. It's shocking," Marilyn Krisely, the owner's sister, said as she and Mr. Cretella's son Dave watched as firefighters battled the flames consuming the family-owned business. "Thank God nobody was hurt. It can be rebuilt."
Owner David Cretella was at his home in Seminole. The Gabber did not attempt to contact him.
Nine engine companies and 31 vehicles responded to the two-alarm fire. Shortly before midnight the firefighters had yet to determine whether anyone was inside the building, although the younger Cretellas assured the Gabber the family had accounted for all staff members.
The Gulfport Fire Department will cordon off the area for the night. Gulfport Police will protect the scene. This includes Gulfport Dive and Newton Photography (owned by St. Petersburg Councilmember Wengay Newton). Firefighters made emergency entry into these two businesses to determine the extent of the fire.
The Community Emergency Response Team, CERT, stayed on scene throughout the emergency, providing firefighters with water. Sunstar also traveled from Largo to the scene with chairs and other supportive supplies for the men and women who battled the fire.
Fire officials will return to the scene "to look at the building in the morning, when the sun comes up," Chief Marenkovic said.