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Hillsborough County

Fire destroys Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Tampa

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) -- One of Tampa's oldest schools, Robert E. Lee Elementary is mostly cinders after it went up in flames on Tuesday night.

Crews began battling the fire at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday and called for a third alarm to bring more equipment and personnel to the scene.  Fire officials said the roof showed signs of collapse, therefore they decided to pull firefighters from inside the beginning and began attacking the fire from the outside.   On Wednesday morning, smoke was still coming from the charred school.  It was brought under control by 2:45 a.m.  Fortunately, no one was injured.

The fire is still under investigation and preliminary information indicates it does not appear suspicious.

The three-story brick building, which is located on East Columbus Drive was built in 1906.  According to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser website, the value of the building is $2,700,000.  Fire officials said the content of the school is valued at $2,275,000 for a total damage estimate of $4,975,000.

News Channel 8 had viewers reach out from all across the Tampa Bay area saying they could see the smoke Tuesday night. Some were as far away as Clearwater.

In a neighborhood plunged into darkness by Hurricane Irma, the fire was the brightest thing around.

Neighbors stood and watched as Tampa Fire Rescue tried to save the old school.

"We had a partial roof collapse on the northeast side of the building. Once that occurred the incident commander decided to pull those firefighters out and go into what we call a defensive mode" said Jason Penny with Tampa Fire-Rescue.

Aerial trucks poured water on the flames as they licked from the eves.

People who live nearby reported hearing a pop, or a surge sound, and soon after someone spotted smoke and called 911.

"Power was out in this area, and it could have something to do with power came on, that's something that we're still looking into. But again, investigators have not had time to go in," said Penny.

This fire is heartbreaking for students and staffers who think of this place, as a second home.

"Our school got tore up. We don't know what caused it, but it got tore up. It doesn't look like it used to. It was just remodeled with the roof and everything. So that is hard on the workers too," said Anthony Dorvio, a student at the school.  "They say they are gonna give us a location to go to, like a different school location. So they will make us stay there and do school there. I am still going to school Monday, we just have to wait as see about the location. It is all a bout safety."

"We are already working on a plan for next Monday to reunite the entire school at another location. And that's already being planned" said Superintendent Jeff Eakins.

When it is safe, firefighters will go room by room to search for a cause.

The good news is this was not a hurricane shelter so nobody was inside.

The district said they are finalizing the plan on where students will go. A spokeswoman for the district said they will notify parents when the plan is ready.

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