Public records for the past four years show that inspectors certified the place. The 911 report on the July 7th fire reveals the first moments of the tragedy.
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The Tropicana Flea Market, which last July 7th suffered a fire that left dozens of businesses destroyed and closed its doors until further notice, was in order with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue (MDFR) inspections, according to records obtained by the Itempnews Project.
The raging fire that swept through the market located in the Northwest 37th Street and 30th Avenue area of Miami-Dade directly affected forty-four merchants, mostly Latino immigrants, who lost their merchandise and in many cases their life’s work.
One person was slightly injured by the flames, but no fatalities were reported. The market is open to the public only on weekends and the fire occurred on a Thursday.
The reports obtained by Itempnews under the state’s public records law span all of 2018 until the last inspection occurred on June 6, 2022, just one month before the fire.
In 2018 MDFR inspectors found a number of minor violations that were subsequently corrected by the property owners who make up the market.
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Some of the failures had to do with problems in the emergency lighting system, maintenance-related records, fire alarms, or that emergency plans were not available at the time of the evaluation.
The reports obtained by Itempnews are the result of annual inspections and any necessary follow-up inspections conducted at the flea market.
» MDFR has two separate accounts at that location, one covered the main building (which was damaged by the fire) and the other the open-air common areas where the vendors operate stalls,» explained Christie Toledo-Fernandez, an officer in MDFR’s records office.
On the afternoon of July 7, when the fire broke out, the blaze was spreading through most of the commercial booths that were barely separated by cardboard and plastic, until it reached a warehouse that served several businesses.
To ensure compliance with the Florida Fire Prevention Code, all businesses must undergo an annual inspection and receive a «Life Safety Operating Permit.»
In January 2022, when the market had its first inspection of the year, the department’s inspector found violations of fire extinguisher regulations, which all commercial premises in the city are required by law to have, according to records.
A second assessment on February 9th, following up on the previous violation, showed that the problem was rectified, and the market received fire marshal approval.
On June 6, there was another visit by the inspector. He detected no code violations, so he passed the evaluation.
Inspections depend on the case, its details, and progress, according to law enforcement officials.
» If we have just started enforcement on a property, the typical process is that we issue a Notice of Violation, which is a warning. The property owner has 30 days to correct the violation (get permits, remove an illegal structure, etc. – it depends on the actual violation what the remedy would be,» explained Tere Florin, spokesperson for the Miami Dade County Department of Regulations and Economic Resources.
If at 30 days the property owner has not obtained a permit (if that is what they were required to do) or has not asked for more time, we issue a citation.
If they did obtain a permit, there are required inspections that are part of the permitting process through completion, Florin added.
A dozen stall owners interviewed reported that the market owners made it easy to obtain fire extinguishers for which they had to pay. Annual recharging and inspection were paid for by management.
«We recently had an inspection, and everything went well,» commented María Rivas, a clothing vendor who has been affected by the closure of the market, although her merchandise was not damaged by the fire.
According to current regulations, fire reports take 7 days, per Central Records, but a large incident like this might take longer.
«Fire Investigation reports take quite a bit longer, usually 4 to 6 weeks,» said MDFR Capt. Doug Keller from the Fire Investigations Bureau.
Captain Keller was in the disaster area that Thursday, July 7th.
He recalled that the «main market building suffered significant fire damage, so it is weaker than it was before.»
Keller commented that “MDFR does not have the ability to measure damage to a building’s structure and does not declare buildings as safe or unsafe. In that case, the Miami-Dade County Office of Unsafe Structures would be responsible for assessing the stability of the building.”
The officer warned that “nobody should enter any part of the property, even the not burned portions, without authorization from the property owner.”
Hazards that may be present «are collapse hazards, sharp objects, electrical hazards, uncontained chemicals, tripping hazards,» he said.
The Itempnews Project reviewed dozens of public reports generated between 2011 and 2020 related to regulatory cases under the 3755 NW 30 TH AVE address that corresponds to the Tropicana market registry.
After the various inspections, the authorities reported that the problems detected were resolved by the property owners and there were no repeat offenses.
In formal terms, the Tropicana Flea Market was in good standing with all Miami Dade County records, so what happened that afternoon, as firefighters first indicated, points to an accident that caused the flames to spread at spectacular speed.
«Fire inside the store»
The first call the 911 operator received warned of a fire in progress at a flea market in Miami Dade County.
On her screen, she could see that it was 16: 54 on Thursday, July 7, 2022. That afternoon, the clouds covered a good part of the city, but the inclement summer sun did not stop scorching the streets and the wind did its thing.
«Fire inside flea market store; person unable to notice what is burning,» the hotline dispatcher wrote in her remarks, according to 911 call records from that day accessed by Itempnews through a public records request.
In those fractions of seconds that marked 16:54 p.m., 911 calls began coming in one after another reporting the same fire alert at the Tropicana Flea Market on 30th Avenue.
In one such contact, the person on the other end of the line described the strength of the flares and the speed with which they were spreading through the old flea market, made up of some two hundred white plastic tents in the open air and a rusty old warehouse that houses stores of all kinds.
«Tent engulfed in flames,» the dispatcher noted. «Fire in flea market started in the kitchen area.» «Additional caller warns of black smoke in the warehouse area,» the note said.
«Warehouse full of rabbits and birds. Multi tents on fire» reads another part of the comments as the operator asks all vacant units to come to the scene.
Beyond dozens of birds and other animals that suffocated to death because they were in a pet tent in the warehouse, the fire left only «property damage.»
However, this technical and even innocuous expression in the jargon of bureaucrats, translated for the flea market merchants into the loss of work, hope, and livelihood. For others, it meant ruin.