‘Once in a lifetime:’ Old greyhound track becomes firefighter training haven

Thaddeus Mast
Naples Daily News

Two inches of water filled what was once the poker space in the old Bonita Springs Greyhound Racing building off Bonita Beach Road.

“We’re going straight into the room on the left,” one Estero firefighter said into his mask radio.

An ominous orange glow bled from a back office.

“Moving in,” another replied.

“There’s no more hose, no more hose,” said one firefighter, manning the pipe connection 100 feet away.

One minute passed.

“Fire out,” the first firefighter said.

The crew of fourextinguished the simulated fire in less than three minutes.

Estero Fire Rescue firefighters put out a simulated fire during a training held by the Bonita Springs Fire Control and Rescue District at the old Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track building in Bonita Springs on Thursday, April 22, 2021.

They walked back out of the emergency exit to the full parking lot — to a cacophony of fire engines from 19 departments across Lee County.

The crews all came to exploit the final days of the 250,000-square-foot monolith built 70 years ago. A new building, the Bonita Springs Poker Room, opened six months ago and sits much closer to the road. It has more poker tables and a new restaurant but lost the iconic greyhound racing track. Dog racing was outlawed by Florida voters in 2020.

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The Havenick family, owners of the track and poker room, promised to demolish the building by fall as part of a deal with the city. Honc Industries, based in St. James City, will begin demolition in early May. Project manager Alexandra Honc said it would take about two months to tear down the building.

Before walls began falling, officials with the Bonita Springs Fire Control and Rescue District reached out to the business and asked them to delay destruction for a few weeks, said Greg DeWitt, chief of the Bonita Springs Fire and Rescue District.

“It’s once in a lifetime at a facility of this size,” DeWitt said. “This is a very large, multi-story building. The sky’s the limit.”

Smoke and water fill the first floor of the old Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track building in Bonita Springs during a training held by the Bonita Springs Fire Control and Rescue District on Thursday, April 22, 2021.

County-wide training like never before

Firefighters regularly train in buildings set for demolition, but most are small — homes or single-story commercial spaces. A monolithic multi-story building like the greyhound track is extremely rare, said Jason Brod, assistant chief with the Bonita Springs Fire District.

“We use our training facility weekly, but after three times through, you know every nook and cranny,” Brod said. “They don’t know the layout here.”

There were four separate training regiments going on at any point. Fake smoke poured out of a large room on the first floor. Firefighters practiced search and rescue techniques in the dark room using 185-pound dummies.

The second floor, once filled with poker tables and simulcast booths, had a few inches of water. Crews trained to hook up hoses to pipes and douse a training fire. The fire district has a “television fire” — the screen shows flames and reacts to water sprayed on the device.

The third floor was clear of debris. Firefighters wore black-out goggles and trained in large area search. Everyone would hold and drag a length of rope across the floor, catching anyone unconscious on the floor.

From left to right, Sanibel Fire and Rescue District captain John DiMaria, division chief of training Tim Barrett, firefighter and paramedic John Reitenbach, and firefighter Bryan Clement participate in a training held by the Bonita Springs Fire Control and Rescue District at the old Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track building in Bonita Springs on Thursday, April 22, 2021.

The final crews were on the roof. Large buildings engulfed in flames need holes in the roof to help clear smoke from the interior.

The building destruction acted as an ad-hoc training session for all Lee County fire districts. Most crews hadn’t been in the building, including Sanibel firefighter John Reitenbach.

“We are lucky to train together once a year,” Reitenbach said. “Every once in a while, we get a gem for training like this.”

While training is the goal, the firefighters have fun with among the water and smoke. There is even a little competition between the crews — who can run the fire simulation the fastest, for instance.

“Practice as you play,” Brod said.

The district will continue practicing with the urban search and rescue crew. Dummies will be placed under awnings and walls before excavators bring down the structure. Firefighters will dig through the rubble to find the dummies.

“The more prepared these guys are, the better they are in real-life emergencies,” Brod said.

Thaddeus Mast is a south Lee County reporter for the Naples Daily News and The Banner. Support his work by subscribing to our local news organization. Find him on Twitter as @thaddeusmast.