CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Nine firefighters died battling a blaze that raced through a furniture store and warehouse in Charleston, South Carolina, on Monday night, triggering a rolling ball of smoke and flames that destroyed the roof and pelted onlookers with hot ash.
The warehouse was packed with furniture and the blaze “rolled through it like a fireball” while the firefighters tried to put it out, said Pam Blevins, secretary to the Charleston city fire chief, Russell Thomas.
“All we know is nine firefighters, all at once ...” Blevins told Reuters by telephone on Tuesday, choking up with emotion. “The building collapsed on them.”
The tragedy was the single-worst loss of firefighters since 343 firefighters and paramedics died in New York on September 11 while searching for survivors in the World Trade Center towers before they collapsed, the U.S. Fire Administration said.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said the magnitude of the loss for the South Carolina city was “difficult to fathom or quantify.”
“But what we know is that nine brave, heroic, courageous firefighters of the city of Charleston have perished fighting fire in a most courageous and fearless manner,” Riley told a news conference with the ruins of the warehouse-store smoldering behind him.
The fire began at about 6:30 p.m. (2230 GMT) at the Sofa Super Store around 5 miles west of the city’s historic district, the fire department said. The front of the store collapsed just over an hour later.
“It was like a 30-foot (9-metre) tornado of flames,” said Mark Hilton, who was standing nearby.
Mayor Riley said two employees were in the building at the time and firefighters broke through a wall to rescue them.
Other witnesses said they saw firefighters drag four people from the building.
“They were covered in black soot,” said Daniel Shahid, a salesman for a nearby car dealer. “They looked scared out of their minds.”
People left flowers on the sidewalk outside the ruins of the store on Tuesday morning.
The mayor said a full investigation would be carried out into the blaze. Arson was not suspected, he said.
Additional reporting by Michael Christie in Miami