Gulfport History Museum Survives Fire

Gulfport Fire Department Lt. Erick Fuchs, third from right, coordinates with firefighters from South Pasadena and St. Petersburg to limit damage to mostly the front porch and adjacent exterior wall. On Labor Day Monday, September 3, arson is suspected to be the cause of a fire that began on the porch of the local History Museum, said Fire Chief Chief James Marenkovic.

It was a close call for an old building constructed entirely of “very dry wood,” said Gulfport Fire Chief James V. Marenkovic. The firefighters, he said, “did an excellent job of saving the museum for the amount of fire that was there.”

In an early morning fire on Labor Day Monday, September 3, flames threatened to involve the entire History Museum in Gulfport but were limited to mostly the front porch and adjacent exterior wall thanks to quick action by first responders from three fire departments, he said.

The fire call came in at 7:13 a.m. from an alarm in the building located at 5301 28th Avenue S., which is four blocks from Gulfport’s fire station.

By 7:17 a.m. first responder crews from Gulfport were on scene, said Marenkovic. Firefighters from South Pasadena and St. Petersburg quickly joined them in the group effort to save both the building and its contents.

No one was injured, he said.

In addition to notification from the Gulfport History Museum’s alarm system, one person in a group of people walking nearby the scene of the fire called 911 on the morning of Labor Day Monday, September 3. Another, Elvis Rosero, used his cell phone to film three videos when the ball of flames was engulfing the building’s front porch. According to Gulfport’s fire chief, the suspected arson fire was started on the west side of the porch, which is on the left in the photo. Afterward, Rosero held his cell phone while this video screen capture photo was taken. Editing software has been used to intentionally blacken the unrelated background around the exterior of the phone. 

In the end, there was damage from fire, water and smoke in addition to the use of a tool used by firefighters to poke holes through and probe the inside wall and ceiling areas “to make sure the fire wasn’t spreading through the interior and up through the attic,” said Marenkovic. The shiplap wood siding that comprises the exterior wall of the building “had a lot of alligatoring so it had been burning for at least an hour.” The floor, roof and railings of the front porch in addition to the double front doors were also burned.

Regarding the interior part of the building, Marenkovic said there was a lot of smoke and water damage.

Marenkovic said the initial estimate for repairs and cleanup to the building is $25,000. At press time, however, Gulfport Historical Society President Cathy Salustri was meeting with insurance adjusters at the museum. The figure, she said, “could be more than double that, once you factor in restoration.”  

The insured building is owned by the city and it is located on public land called Chase Park, said Gulfport City Manager Jim O’Reilly. The city maintains the building and surrounding area. The non-profit Gulfport Historical Society is under a use agreement with the city regarding the building so they can maintain and operate the museum and be responsible for its contents, including insurance. The society can also use the park for their events and activities.

An insurance claim for the structural damage was filed on Tuesday, September 4, said O’Reilly. The exact outcome of the claim will not be known for several days.

“We will assist the society’s members in any ways we can,” he said.

No significant damage occurred to the contents of the museum, said Vice Mayor Christine Brown who is also the past chairperson of the society’s board of directors. She served on the board for 20 years and after winning her re-election bid for the Ward 2 council seat, she stepped down on March 14, 2017 to pursue other ways to serve the city. 

In an email sent on Monday evening to the society’s mailing list, Salustri wrote that the “fire department spared most of the building as well as paper records and photographs. Our main losses are the historic Shuffleboard Club sign and the Gulfport Historic Register sign.”

Residents and those who love Gulfport took to Facebook to learn about the Labor Day Monday, September 3, fire at the local History Museum while firefighters from Gulfport and two other municipal departments were still working the scene. According to the local fire chief, the suspected arson fire started on the porch, which was mostly charred except for one round commemorative artifact that was hanging on the building’s exterior shiplap entrance wall. Within hours of the fire, Cookie Atkinson Cottrell used Facebook to ask Gabber journalist Debbie Wolfe if she had seen her aunt’s sign because she knew it was unscathed. Catherine A. Hickman, the name on the year 2000 plaque, was the founder of the Gulfport Historical Society, the non-profit that curates and operates the museum. “It’s like she was watching over the museum!” said Cottrell. 

Arson Suspect Arrested

In addition to notification from the building’s alarm system, one person in a group of people walking nearby the scene of the fire called 911. Another, Elvis Rosero, used his cell phone to film three videos of the museum building when the flames were engulfing the porch and climbing the outside wall toward the main roof.

Rosero and his friends also heard a man yelling, “I lost my cat! I lost my place! F–k Gulfport!” and saw him walking away from the museum’s front porch. “The flames were already there,” said Rosero. “It caught so quickly.”

When law enforcement arrived, witnesses provided information as to which direction the man had gone.
David Eugene Knoll, 56, of Gulfport, was soon found and taken into custody on Monday by Gulfport police. Arrest and court records identify Knoll as a transient. He is charged with felony arson and is in Pinellas County Jail with a bond of $15,000 awaiting trial. 

After his arrest, Knoll described to law enforcement officers how he started the fire deliberately, said Marenkovic.

Knoll had been staying on the front porch of the museum for a few days, he said. 

“We knew the cause of the fire was not from a cigarette being thrown down. That did not occur,” said Marenkovic.

The fire started on the porch specifically involving a plastic wicker sectional couch with cloth cushions, he said. The fire was “set there and it went from the west side to the east side of the porch then up to the roof.”
When asked, Marenkovic confirmed an aerosol spray can may “possibly” be involved.

Because this is a case of suspected arson, the state fire marshal is assisting local authorities with the fire investigation, he said.

Efforts to Preserve History

The society has started a web-based donation campaign to raise funds that will be used to protect the paper records and images collection by digitizing them. To make a donation, visit squareup.com/market/gulfport-historical-society-inc/item/gulfport-history-museum-fire-donation.

In addition, the owners of the Gulfport Beach Bazaar, 3115 Beach Boulevard, are hosting a fundraiser on Saturday, September 15 from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. and they will donate 25 percent of their total merchandise sales to the museum to help with the effort.

The estimated cost to preserve the collection is between $25,000 and $30,000, said Salustri.

“We’ve now dodged two potentially devastating bullets” in the form of Hurricane Irma in 2017 and the Labor Day fire in 2018, she said.

“The third time, as they say, is the charm,” said Salustri. “That’s why we’re asking you to donate in case we aren’t lucky one more time. We don’t care if it’s $20,000 or 20 cents; every penny helps.”

“Mostly what burned on the 100-year-old building was 100 years of paint,” said Vice Mayor Christine Brown at the Gulfport City Council meeting one day after a suspected arson fire caused an estimated $25,000 in damage at the local History Museum that burned on the early morning of Labor Day Monday, September 3. The Gulfport Fire Department and two other municipal crews worked to save the wooden building and its contents. According the city’s fire chief, the front porch is where the fire started. “There was a little wood damage,” said Brown. “I mean, I’m not an expert but it was a lot of paint!”

 

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