Sanford cell tower fire costs nearby business money

By Jeff Allen, Reporter
Last Updated: Thursday, August 22, 2013

Workers on a cell phone tower that caught fire Wednesday were just feet away from flames while more than 100 feet in the air.

News 13 has learned more about the terrifying moments after the tower caught fire in Sanford, near the intersection of U.S. 17-92 and Historic Goldsboro Boulevard.

At one point, firefighters thought the cell phone tower could collapse at any minute.

But crews removed parts of the tower they said were in danger of falling down.

Officials said the large hollow 125-foot pole left standing is structurally sound until crews can replace it.

When flames and smoke began shooting out from the tower about 11:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, Robin Thorne was preparing lunch at the State Market Restaurant nearby.

Thorne had a terrifying view of everything.

In a 911 dispatch call released by the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office Thursday, Thorne can be heard frantically calling for help.

Thorne: “It’s on fire and guys are half-way up it.”

Dispatcher: “There are guys half-way up it?”

Thorne: “Oh … there’s stuff falling … come on.”

Dispatcher: “Ok, who’s half-way up the tower?

Thorne: “The people working on the tower.”

Dispatcher: “The workers on the tower?”

Thorne: “Yes, now they’re coming down pretty quick.”

Officials said one of the workers had to rappel down, and one could even be seen climbing down.

But firefighters said all five people doing work on the tower were expected to be okay.

Thorne said her family’s restaurant was forced to evacuate, costing the business thousands of dollars.

“It was a real bad time. It took my lunch away. We got evacuated about 11:30 and they didn’t let me back in until about six last night,” said Thorne.

On top of spoiled food and lost revenue, Thorne said she had to fix her air-conditioning.

She said it broke when the area’s electric grid surged on and off while firefighters were fighting the cell tower fire.

The losses have added up, she said.

“Probably two to 3,000 dollars-worth, and for a small business, that’s a lot of money,” said Thorne.

As for what started the fire, News 13 has learned the workers were welding, and fire investigators said there was an empty bird nest on the top of the tower when the fire sparked.

But investigators they say it’s too early to know exactly what sparked the fire.

Sanford Fire Marshal Tim Robles told News 13 it could be days or even weeks before the tower is completely replaced because the city has to grant a special permit to allow the contractor to replace it.