KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Flames burned Monday in the ruins of the Vacation Lodge Maingate on West U.S. Highway 192, where scores of poor tenants lost everything they owned in their $100-a-week rooms.
The 430-room complex burned so fast late Sunday that Osceola County fire officials questioned if basic fire-safety features were working.
Long a source of complaints and police calls, the Vacation Lodge was faulted in April by the county Code Enforcement Board for an unmonitored sprinkler system, broken or missing exit lights, empty fire extinguishers and blocked fire hydrants, records show.
Starting about 10:15 pm. EDT Sunday, a fire that broke out in a single room raced through an attic and turned the rooms below into an inferno before the first firefighters reached the blaze, said Dan McAvoy, deputy fire chief.
By Monday morning, a column of black smoke soaring upward hundreds of feet just south of Walt Disney World could be seen for miles across Central Florida. More than 100 firefighters from Osceola, Orange, Lake and Polk counties as well as Kissimmee, Orlando and Reedy Creek surrounded the fire, pumping water on what remained of the wood buildings.
The fire shut down U.S. Highway 192 in both directions, causing lengthy backups and detours. By late Monday, only one eastbound lane was closed. It was unclear if any lanes would be closed Tuesday.
Caught in the middle of Monday's traffic jam were honeymooners Krunal Patel and his wife, Hiranshi, who arrived late Sunday from India to a stay at a Ramada Inn next door to the Vacation Lodge. They arrived shortly after the fire broke through the roof, and they stayed awake all night watching the flames light the night sky.
"We just got married and now we're trying to get to the Magic Kingdom," Krunal Patel said as the couple walked through yellow fire-line tape crisscrossing the highway. "Do you know where we can get a cab?"
The fire investigation likely will not begin until Tuesday, when the ruins will be cool enough to inspect, according to McAvoy.
Six tenants and two firefighters were treated at Celebration Hospital for undisclosed injuries. One was an unidentified man who rented the room where the fire began. Detectives from the Orange County Sheriff's Office accompanied the man to the hospital, but he has not been arrested, said sheriff's spokeswoman Twis Lizasuain.
Information about the man was turned over to the state Fire Marshal's Office, which will conduct the fire investigation.
Vacation Lodge passed its May 17 inspection by the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
Sunday's evacuation took just minutes once residents alerted each other after they said smoke alarms and sprinklers failed to work in their rooms.
"Honestly, I didn't see the sprinklers go off, and there were hardly any fire extinguishers," said Micheal White, 30, who moved into Room 1230 six months ago. "The management never fixed anything. The only time they came to look at a sparking (outlet) plug in my room was when I threatened to call the fire marshal."
A spokesman for the Vacation Lodge Maingate could not be reached Monday afternoon.
Some tenants remembered the alarm ringing briefly before the electricity throughout the building failed.
"A lot of the fire extinguishers were no good, but I did find one when the fire first started and it worked," said John Fremgen from Room 1362. "It was our home, and we've lost everything."
The American Red Cross opened a shelter for 120 displaced residents at Celebration High School.
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