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5-alarm blaze destroys 7 Salt Lake businesses

Fire of unknown origin sends pillar of smoke soaring

A five-alarm fire destroyed seven Salt Lake businesses Monday morning, shooting flames more than 20 feet in the air and spewing a thick black pillar of smoke that could be seen across the valley.

Salt Lake City Fire Capt. Scott Freitag said it was the biggest fire he can remember in the city in the past decade.

Although the businesses were a loss, no one was injured in the blaze. More than 100 firefighters from Salt Lake City and several other agencies helped fight the flames.

The cause of the fire was unknown as of deadline Monday. But Freitag said, "The fire was in the attic. But where it actually started we don't know."

The complex that burned housed 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.

Giant fans were used by firefighters in an unsuccessful effort to push the fire away from Henrie's. But the fans successfully kept the flames away from a nearby apartment complex in a tactic known as "positive pressure." The apartment complex was evacuated as a precaution.

The businesses shared a common attic, which firefighters said is the reason the fire spread so quickly. As one area of the roof was extinguished, flames would sprout up in another area.

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 also 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, hampering the efforts of firefighters. Water pressure from some of the hydrants was low because of the construction.

By 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 defensive mode, meaning the best they could do at that point was prevent the fire from spreading to other buildings.

A nearby pole-top transformer also caught fire, but power outages directly related to the fire were minimal, Utah Power spokesman Dave Eskelsen said.

Approximately 3,300 customers lost power for about 45 minutes while Utah Power moved its service from one substation to another, Eskelsen said. The electricity was turned back on at 10:17 a.m., and no other outages have occurred.

Originally, crews were worried about chemicals in a dry cleaning business and helium in a balloon store that could have potentially fueled the flames.

Shortly before noon and 2 1/2 hours after the fire department was called, the fire still burned as flames spread through each business in the complex and its combustibles. As one area of the roof was extinguished, flames would sprout up in another area.

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.