Quick actions by a student at Saddlebrook Preparatory School averted the potential loss of life, in the early morning hours of June 9.
About 2:30 a.m., the student smelled smoked and went searching for the source.
When he saw smoke, “he pulled the alarm. He started knocking on doors. His roommates went and knocked on doors. He called security, and security came down and they knocked on doors,” said Pat Ciaccio, general manager of Saddlebrook Resort Tampa, at 5700 Saddlebrook Way in Wesley Chapel.
The resort has been home to an international school for aspiring professional tennis players and golfers since 1993. Ninety-six students, from 26 countries, attend the school, including 54 who board at the resort. While the school is for students from grade three through 12, it only boards eighth- through 12th-graders.
There were 28 students and two adults in the boys’ dormitory which caught fire, and everyone got out of the building without injury, Ciaccio said.
“We were able to get all of the students out actually, before there were flames. There was just smoke at the time,” Ciaccio said.
“From that point on, it turned into a three-alarm,” Ciaccio said.
Pasco County Fire Rescue Training Chief Shawn Whited said when the fire department crews arrived, “they had heavy fire through the roof of the building.
“As we were getting there, we realized there was a lot of fire there, so we called for a second- and third-alarm to help fight the fire,” Whited added. “The building was heavily damaged. The roof was burned off.”
It took 55 firefighters more than 1 ½ hours to put out the fire, and fire department investigators were still on the scene hours later, trying to determine the cause for the blaze, Whited said.
It turns out that the fire was started by a faulty bathroom exhaust fan/ bathroom heater mounted in the ceiling, Whited said.
No estimates were available on the extent of the loss, but Whited described the damage as extensive. “They’re going to have to gut the entire building,” he said.
On the afternoon after the fire, Ciaccio said, “Really, the extent of the damage — it’s too early — the adjusters aren’t even at the property yet.”
In the short term, the boarders from the boys’ dorm were relocated to the next courtyard.
“They’ll remain in there, those that stay for summer school, and then next school year, we’ll go back into there until Courtyard 11 is rebuilt,” Ciaccio said.
The general manager praised the students, resort staff and emergency rescue workers for their response.
The student who smelled the smoke “went into fire-drill mode,” Ciaccio said, explaining that the school and dormitories have monthly fire drills to know how to handle such emergencies.
“When your chief of security is calling you at 3 a.m., it’s not a good phone call. To arrive on property shortly after that and to have everything as buttoned down — you don’t ever want the tragedy to happen, but you feel good about the preparation,” he said.
“In an hour’s time, we had them (students) relocated to another courtyard, and they were in rooms, laying down,” he said.
He was particularly impressed by the way the students conducted themselves.
“They are in pressure situations all of the time on the tennis court, on the golf course. And, obviously that just extended into their personal lives, because they handled this situation so effortlessly.
“We were business as usual today. The kids were in class, taking exams,” Ciaccio said.
That is, except for the 28 who were in the dorm on the night of the fire. They were excused from exams.
Published June 15, 2016