The sounds of breaking glass and crackling flames were still fresh in Kaitlin Kee's mind Monday morning, a day after flames ripped through the West Coast Surf Shop in Holmes Beach. From the street, the smell of burned materials still hangs in the air, but owners hope to reopen the historic shop in a few months.
Kee, 23, who has worked at the surf shop for six years, was there Sunday when one of about 30 customers in the store came up to her and said it smelled like burning plastic.
She called 911 and remembered seeing a light haze in the building. Working quickly with her two other coworkers, they got everyone out of the shop at the advice of the 911 dispatcher.
Kee said within about two minutes, the fire had spread.
"We came out and the windows were just bursting out and fire was just rolling through so quickly, I can't believe it," Kee said. "So we just ran downstairs, and of course, it was pouring rain."
Kee used the shop phone to call 911 and the store's owners. Jim and Ronee Brady had been on their way back from watching their grandson participate in a surfing competition on the east coast of Florida, 2 1/2 hours away. Brady and her husband have owned the West Coast Surf Shop, 3902 Gulf Drive, since 1964 and it has has become a staple in the island community.
Brady said it's the oldest surf shop in Florida.
"All I said is, 'The surf shop's on fire' and it got cut off," Kee said. "So I was trying to find anyone's phone in the rain so I could try to clarify what's happening."
"I was shocked," Brady said, praising Kee for her quick action to get everyone outside safely.
Brady tried calling back several times and then finally got a second call from Kee. She also got a photo from someone that showed the back of the building, reassuring her that part of the building was fine.
"It was just the scariest thing ever," Kee said.
Kee said they were lucky it happened during the day when people were around to call for help and get the flames put out quickly.
She said the first responders were quick to arrive and extinguish the fire.
No injuries were reported, according to West Manatee Fire Rescue officials.
An investigation by West Manatee Fire Rescue found that the fire started on the east side of the building's second floor and is believed to be "electrical in nature," according to officials.
In a post to the surf shop's Facebook page Sunday evening, a thank you message was penned to the community, employees and first responders after the "traumatic experience."
"We just want to say thank you for the overwhelming response of thoughts and prayers! We are so blessed that everyone is ok! Thanks to our heroes, Kaitlin, Anna, & Benny for making sure our customers got out safe and sound! Not to mention the police and firefighters for their valiant efforts to save our livelihood! You don’t know how much it meant to come home to a parking lot full of amazing friends, family, customers, and kind strangers waiting with open arms. It made such a traumatic experience so much more bearable."
The fire was documented on social media and several posts showing the fire were shared. Along with spreading the news, an outpouring of support came from the social media posts as well.
"It's just crazy how the community came together, even in the pouring rain like that, so many people came out for support," Kee said. "We can't even look at our phones because so many people are offering help and food and places to stay if anyone was upstairs. People are reaching out from everywhere."
As they stood outside Monday surveying the damage with inspectors, at least one person stopped by to ask if everyone made it out safely and offered to help get the store reopened.
"It's just overwhelming and wonderful," Brady said.
Brady hasn't been inside the building since the fire, but said they hope to reopen in the next three to six months.
"The only thing I'm disappointed in is we won't be able to have it the same," Brady said, worried about the numerous surfing antiques inside.
"Everything about the building was old-school, it was just irreplaceable," Kee said.
Brady said the apartment and office have smoke damage, but the fire was in the shop itself. Fire officials told her the building was structurally "looking pretty good."