By Shannon McFarland
The Sarasota Herald Tribune
SARASOTA COUNTY, Fla. — Mildred Lentini, 92, has lived in the Lido Regency Condominium for 20 years. She and other residents of the beachfront condo a few blocks from St. Armands Circle would hardly expect a forced evacuation because of a fire from a suspected methamphetamine lab in their building.
But Lentini, who needs a wheelchair, found herself being carried down the condo's steps by firefighters, who ordered the building's evacuation Tuesday morning because of concerns oxygen tanks and hazardous chemicals in a 12th-floor unit could explode.
"Two firemen came up to carry me down" from her home two floors below the fire, Lentini said, "step by step, one in front and one in back."
Eight Sarasota County Fire Department firefighters were hospitalized for respiratory problems and possible chemical exposure, though no other injuries were reported. The fire was out about 20 minutes after it started around 8:30 a.m., said Fire Department spokeswoman Susan Pearson.
The fire triggered two criminal investigations, one led by the fire marshal and the other led by Sarasota Police.
Sarasota Police spokesman Paul Sutton said the department obtained a search warrant for the condo and is working with federal Drug Enforcement Administration officials to confirm the unit was being used as a meth lab and whether the resident there was the person operating it. The resident was reportedly seen leaving the condos about the time of the fire.
Neighbors said the unit at 1700 Ben Franklin Drive is owned and rented out by a couple living in Italy.
Oxygen and compressed gas tanks found in the unit have been removed, Sarasota County said in a news release.
The condominium's 40 residents were relocated to the nearby Holiday Inn until officials determine that the building is safe, the release stated. Since many snowbirds have not returned yet, a number of the units were unoccupied.
A one-bedroom unit at the Regency is listed at $275,000 online, while another two-bedroom unit is priced at $634,500. The clean, 13-story property on Lido Beach looks nothing like the shady-looking meth houses of television shows.
Firefighters did not realize until the smoke began to clear that they faced more than just a blaze and needed to evacuate the building.
"They had to secure the area and get out," Pearson said. "Luckily they were able to get it out with water."
Firefighters broke locked doors on the 13th floor, the building's top level, checking for residents who could still be inside. The apartment where the fire originated was empty when fire crews arrived.
Without protective gear or equipment to indicate the chemicals left after the fire, the firefighters waited for a full hazardous materials team to clear out the chemicals and tanks. A total of 24 fire units, including two from Longboat Key, responded to the fire.
Lentini was unable to get down the stairs herself or with her caretaker's help. She was relieved to see the firefighters at her door.
Sipping water while she waited outside with other residents, she said the firefighters' response was "quick and efficient."
"I'm so appreciative," Lentini said.
Some residents were still dressed in bathrobes or wearing slippers, carrying the coffee mugs from their disrupted breakfast. The residents chatted with neighbors or settled in beach chairs. Firefighters and paramedics made rounds, checking for residents with medical conditions or any special needs.
Ashley Kiefer, visiting her retired father at the condo, was putting sunscreen on her two children when they heard the alarm. Once outside with her 8-month-old and 3-year-old sons, Kiefer realized they could be stranded for hours, without formula to feed the baby. Firefighters came to her aid, she said.
Armed with her list, they retrieved the baby's formula and car seat. One also brought her diaper bag, thinking she might need it.
"One of the firefighters asked if we had any money," Kiefer said. "He reached into his wallet and gave us $10 to get a snack."
Many of the building's residents are elderly and disabled, with caregivers, said Chuck Amstutz, who is retired. "Not a lot of young people here."
As for the chance the building housed a meth lab, he said, "Would anything surprise anyone? It's real serious stuff. It's spooky to realize it's going on right at your neighbors'."
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