Crews from Key Iron Works start demolition and debris removal at 3201 Flagler Ave. following a devastating Sept. 28 fire during Hurricane Ian. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

It’s been more than three months since a fire at Flagler Center, 3201 Flagler Ave., destroyed 14 residential units atop 10 or so ground-floor businesses. But work finally started last week, when crews from Key Iron Works began hauling away debris and demolishing all but the building’s concrete shell.

The damage is estimated to be $12.8 million, according to reports from the Key West Fire Department and fire and insurance investigators. 

Its cause is undetermined, but is thought to have started in a “chaseway,” or area between the two floors that contains miles of wiring, said Steve Robbins, president of the Flagler Center Condominium Association and owner of a few of the units, including three businesses in first-floor units —  Barrett Printing, Category 5 Signs and Local Awards & Engraving. 

The fire started before dawn on Sept. 28, while Hurricane Ian fanned the flames with 50 mph winds and flooded nearby roads.

“High hurricane force winds quickly spread the fire from west to east, through the utility chase that ran the entire length of the structure,” wrote shift commander David Zarate in his report. “Once the roof began to show distortion and the eaves began to sag, I changed from offense to defense and ordered all personnel out of the structure.”

Zarate writes of enlisting help from all off-duty firefighters as well as Monroe County Fire Rescue and Naval Air Station crews. He called Keys Energy Services to cut power to the property and worked with Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority to “boost” water pressure in the area given the use of five different hydrants at once with 3-inch water lines and “deck guns,” (aimable, controllable high-capacity water jets used for manual firefighting).

Key West firefighters were on scene within six minutes of receiving the call at 5:28 a.m. — and fought the fire for the next 12 hours, according to the incident report from Key West Fire Department. The fire likely had started at least two hours before anyone noticed flames or smoke, leading many to speculate that it started as an electrical fire in the utility chaseway between floors, which is inaccessible to residents; the cause remains officially undetermined.

No serious injuries — to firefighters or residents — were reported.

“I really need to give a shout-out to all the firefighters, and now to Key Iron Works for the fantastic job they’re doing with the demolition,” said Robbins. “Those guys have been willing to sift through debris to find numerous items for residents, such as jewelry and baby photos for some of the residents.”

Robbins added that all displaced businesses have reopened, either in temporary spaces or with employees working remotely.

Robbins said he moved his operations to 913 Eaton St. The other displaced businesses include Barnes Alarms, Curry & Sons Printing, Bone Island Chiropractic, Ward & Meyers Accounting, Southernmost Smiles dental office, Gandara Bath & Fixtures and Island Refrigeration.

“I know that one tenant, regrettably, left town, unable to find another place to live. Others are all in temporary living situations and have said they’re eager to come back when the building is ready.”That will likely be another 18 to 24 months, Robbins said.
“Once the debris removal is done, an engineer will do a concrete analysis and then we’ll keep pressing forward in the coming months to build it back,” he said.

Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.