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Roaring blaze guts 7 Salt Lake businesses

5-alarm fire sends pillar of smoke soaring

A five-alarm fire roared through seven Salt Lake businesses Monday morning, spewing a thick black pillar of smoke that could be seen across the valley.

The cause of the fire was unknown as of press deadline Monday. Salt Lake City Fire Capt. Scott Freitag said, "The fire was in the attic, but where it actually started, we don't know."

The businesses were extensively damaged, but no one was injured in the blaze.

Firefighters were called at 9:16 a.m. to strip mall businesses at the corner of South Temple and 500 East after an employee in one business reported smoke coming from a shoe-repair shop.

"I was sitting in the office and I heard all this banging and clanging and I looked up and smoke was pouring through the crack in the wall," Mail Express Plus employee Chris Filimoehola said.

Mail Express shared a wall with the shoe-repair shop where witnesses said the fire apparently started. After seeing the smoke, Filimoehola called 911 and then left the building.

"The windows were just black," Filimoehola said of the shoe-repair shop. "I didn't see any flames. It was all smoke."

By 9:45 a.m. flames were visible from the rooftop of the L-shaped business center. The heat buildup in the false ceiling of the business complex made it especially difficult to fight the blaze, said Dennis McKone, administrative assistant to the fire chief for Salt Lake City.

Road construction on South Temple made it difficult for fire trucks to get into the area. Some of the area's water supply had also been shut off because of the construction.

By about 10:05 a.m. flames were shooting more than 20 feet in the air, prompting firefighters to begin dousing the roof with water as thick black smoke filled the sky.

By 10:15 a.m., firefighters were in a defense mode, meaning the best they could do at that point was prevent the fire from spreading to other businesses. As one area of the roof was extinguished, flames would sprout up in another area.

An apartment complex behind the business complex was evacuated as a precaution.

The business complex houses Henrie's Dry Cleaners, a barbershop, a shoe-repair shop, a jewelry store, a real estate company, a postal business and Balloon, Boutique and Party Place.

Dozens of onlookers assisted firefighters in saving hundreds of items of clothing and furniture from the dry cleaning business. Volunteers filled yellow baskets with clothes and piled them on the lawn across the street.

Owner Boyd Henrie, who has been at the South Temple location for more than 20 years, said he was surprised but appreciative of the bystanders' efforts.

Balloon Boutique owner Vickie Hofheins saw smoke from a few blocks away and didn't realize it was coming from her business. When she arrived to open her shop she found firetrucks in the parking lot.

Hofheins and her husband have owned the small business for about 20 years. She could only watch with tears in her eyes as firefighters scaled the roof to fight the blaze.

"It's heartbreaking," she said.

The local businesses, many of which had just opened for the day, were evacuated and 500 East became a tangled mess of firetrucks and hoses.

Metropolitan Real Estate broker Kayo Smith was in his office when Filimoehola warned him the building was on fire.

"It was only a matter of minutes, very few minutes, and then I started seeing smoke inside of our space here," he said.

As firefighters descended on the building, employees of the real estate agency removed their computer and files. "Our two most important things," Smith said.