Flames swept through a former flea market being used as a homeless camp in Oneco on Christmas Eve, causing homeless people to scatter into nearby woods and parking lots, but authorities said they’ve found no evidence so far of any injuries or fatalities.
The two-alarm fire broke out shortly after 1 p.m. Saturday at the former La Mexicana Flea Market, 5715 15th St. E. Smoke filled the sky, and flames engulfed a row of metal buildings at the south end of the property. Other buildings in the former flea market were in visible disrepair but unaffected by the fire.
As “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” blared from loudspeakers at nearby businesses, dozens of people watched while firefighters fought the massive blaze.
“You’ve got to remember, people are living in there,” said Lt. Melvin Bonds of Southern Manatee Fire Rescue. “They scattered real quick. That’s why you see people walking and crying. They lost the place where they live.”
Bonds said a 911 call was received at 1:08 p.m., and 35 firefighters and five paramedics responded to the scene.
“They had their hands full,” he said.
Several witnesses at the scene said they feared two people may be missing and that the fire had been deliberately set, but as of 6 p.m. officials with Southern Manatee Fire Rescue and Manatee Emergency Communications reported there were no reports of injuries, and there had been no official determination of how the fire started.
Ten firefighters spent much of the afternoon meticulously searching the smoldering ruins. They finished around 5 p.m. A state fire marshal remained on the scene into Saturday evening to investigate the cause. The fire marshal and a handful of firefighters were still on the scene as darkness fell.
The former flea market is located at the southeast corner of 15th Street East and 57th Avenue East. Sheriff’s deputies directed traffic away from the scene.
Red Cross personnel arrived at the scene about 2:30 p.m. to assist with providing water and refreshments to fire crews, and an MCAT bus was available to provide air conditioning for first responders.
Bonds said the buildings affected by the fire would be bulldozed once the fire marshal completes an investigation, perhaps as early as Saturday night. People who are familiar with the site said about 12 to 15 buildings were not burned, and Bonds said those buildings would not be razed.