Update 7/26: Police have arrested 20-year-old Carlos Alberto Crespo for setting the fire at Melreese. They don't believe Crespo's motive was political or tied to the stadium deal, the Miami Herald reports; Crespo is suspected of setting several other fires nearby in recent months.
When several explosions rattled the quiet neighborhood near Melreese Country Club last night, startled neighbors pulled out cell phones and began filming. They watched in shock as flames leapt dozens of feet above the pro shop at the city-owned golf course.
Miami firefighters rushed in to find dozens of golf carts engulfed in flames. The first responders were able to put out the blaze, but this morning they're left with two obvious questions: How did the gigantic fire start? And if it was intentional, did the fire have anything to do with David Beckham's new plan to build a Major League Soccer stadium on the site?
Capt. Ignatius Carroll, a spokesperson for Miami Fire Rescue, tells New Times that state and local investigators are at the scene sorting through the wreckage. For now, it's too early to say whether the fire was intentional.
"The cause of the fire is undetermined," Carroll says. "The investigators have been out there since last night, and they're there working this morning."
Melreese's management, though, says the fire wasn't an accident. Local 10 reports this morning that the blaze is already being called the work of an arsonist.
The first calls to 911 came around 10:30 last night from neighbors who spotted the blaze, Carroll says.
"We had reports of residents hearing small explosions. When we arrived, we found over a dozen golf carts fully engulfed in flames, and flames right next to the pro shop," he says. "We had firefighters concentrated on protecting the buildings nearby. Within ten minutes, the fire was knocked down."
#BREAKING: Miami Fire Rescue responds to a fire at Melreese Golf Course. Between 36 to 40 golf carts were on fire. A neighbor shot this video, described hearing several explosions. Investigators are on site. NW 37th Ave is closed between 17th & 19th Streets. @WPLGLocal10 pic.twitter.com/x8DHlRuQXr— Liane Morejon (@LianeMorejonTV) July 25, 2018
Once the flames were out, Carroll says, firefighters found dozens of ruined carts at the center of the blaze.
"Once the smoke settled, we were able to determine that around 44 golf carts were either completely destroyed or damaged, some by heat and others directly by the flames," he says.
Nearly 44 golf carts burned at the Melreese Country Club Tuesday night. Investigators are on the scene trying to figure out what caused the fire. No one was hurt in the incident. @WPLGLocal10 pic.twitter.com/94oRPh1QWE— Sanela Sabovic (@SabovicSanela) July 25, 2018
A security guard was working at the course, whose gates were closed around 8:30 or 9 last night, Carroll says. Investigators from the State Fire Marshal joined Miami Fire Rescue experts at the scene last night, he says; the two agencies will work together on the case.
"They'll be interviewing the security guard and looking at footage from security cameras that may have captured anything before the fire last night," Carroll says.
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This month, Melreese has found itself at the center of a typically Miami political fight since Beckham's group abruptly abandoned its long-simmering plans for an Overtown stadium and pivoted to the golf course just east of Miami International Airport.
After one failed start, city commissioners voted 3-2 to send the proposal to voters on November's ballot after extracting promises from Beckham and his main partners, Jorge and Jose Mas, to eventually pay a living wage to workers at the stadium, to share more revenue with taxpayers, and to front the full cost to clean up a huge mound of toxic incinerator ash buried beneath the greens.
But debate at the commission meetings made it clear there's plenty of heated opposition to the project among residents. Many took aim at the idea of turning over city-owned land to the Mas brothers, who could make serious bank by building a massive retail and hotel complex alongside the stadium. They also face an ongoing lawsuit over whether the city broke competitive bidding rules by putting the plan on the ballot without taking other offers for Melreese's land.
If investigators determine last night's blaze to be intentional, it wouldn't be the first recent contentious development in Miami to be hit by arson. Amid work to build the massive Miami Worldcenter project in Overtown, construction equipment was set on fire. At the time, locals complained they and their neighbors were being forced out of homes and weren't being given jobs on the project.