TAMPA, FL (WFLA) — Hillsborough County Fire Rescue crews battled a massive fire early Thursday morning at the Winston Park Recreation Center near Progress Village.
The community center is located off Palm River Road, next to Clair-Mel Elementary School. The space was under construction.
The fire started around 3 a.m. Around 35 firefighters fought the blaze for almost two hours. Ladder trucks were brought in to fight the flames from above the building, as fire shot through the roof.
Thankfully, no one was inside when the fire broke out. No injuries have been reported.
The center was used for child care and after-school activities. It includes tennis and basketball courts. However, it has been closed during the renovations. The facility was set to reopen later this month or in early January.
Jose Rivera could not take his eyes off what used to be his second home. “I’ve been coming here ever since I was a kid, every day to come play basketball,” Rivera said.
The fire instantly wiped out decades of memories. “For us, that grew up as kids and developed our lives and influences that happened here, through the mentors here, it’s just devastating to us,” Rivera said.
He saw the flames from his home.
“It’s just sad,” he said. “It’s just sad to see something like this because this is just more than just a building to the people here; you know this is our heartbeat.”
Rivera said he hopes something new will rise from the ashes.
With tears in her eyes, Martha Martinez watched as fire crews tried to save the Winston Park Rec Center, a place that she used to work at and often brought her family to.
“All my kids went through that park right there, my nephews, nieces, kids that I call mine. Over 5,000 children have gone in there and made themselves somebody,” Martinez said. “We are just going to keep our prayers and hope that they can restart that and get our hopes up again.”
In March Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik donated $2.5 million to the renovation effort. It was the single largest gift ever made to the Boys and Girls Club of Tampa Bay. The rec center is to be renamed the Jeff and Penny Vinik family.
Jeff Vinik released the following statement Thursday morning:
“Penny and I were very saddened to learn of the fire at Winston Park this morning and we are primarily disappointed for the kids and the community that the recreation center is designed to serve, especially as the facility neared completion. We will do everything we can in working with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay to help facilitate reconstruction.”
Boys and Girls Club of Tampa Bay President and CEO Chris Letsos released this statement:
“The Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay, its leadership team, Board of Directors, and staff are saddened to share news of a fire that has destroyed what was to be the Vinik Family Foundation Boys & Girls Club at Winston Park. We are working with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Tampa Fire Department and Hillsborough County to determine the potential cause and are fully cooperating with authorities as they proceed with investigation. We feel very fortunate that nobody was inside the building and are happy to report that no one was hurt while battling the blaze. This incident affects us all deeply, not only as an organization but as a community. The Vinik Family Foundation Boys & Girls Club was a transformational project that was on target to change the community of Winston Park for the better. It is our hope that this event will not deter us from our progress and we are committed to finding a solution once all investigations are completed. We are now asking for the support of our partners, our friends, and our community as we navigate through this devastating news.”
The cause of the fire is under investigation.