They ignited one after the other, going down like so many dominoes.
Buildings along West Broad Street burned as winds from the south spun ashes and flaming insulation from one rooftop to the next.
It was 6 p.m. - about 5? hours after the first call came in - that the fire at 933 W. Broad St. was marked under control Friday.
"We could have lost blocks," said Keith Vida, Richmond assistant fire marshal.
Instead, 29 buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged during the blaze that started at the construction site for a new student-apartment complex at Virginia Commonwealth University.
But the quick work of more than 200 firefighters and the city's 20 "quint" trucks kept the damage from being much worse.
"We would have lost so many buildings," Vida said. "They would have just burned to the ground."
In 1995, the fire department came up with a plan to move to an operational system called the "total quint concept."
Rather than having some companies use engines for water spraying and other companies use ladder trucks to handle ventilation and rescue, the Richmond fire department equipped every company with a quint - an all-around fire vehicle with pumps, hoses and ladders.
The quints cost $500,000, compared with $350,000 for an engine. The department was able to cut 50 firefighter positions because the quints do the job of an engine and a truck.
Vida said the new system has saved the city plenty of money over the years. And Friday was a perfect example of how well they handle major fires.
"When we put this concept in, a lot of people questioned whether we needed a ladder on every truck. For us, it paid off big time last week because a vast majority of the fires started on rooftops because of flying embers. We only had nine ladder trucks in the city before, and there's no way they could have handled this situation."
Seventeen quints from Richmond and one each from Chesterfield and Henrico counties were on scene. Also, fire personnel from Charles City County, Chesterfield and Henrico manned Richmond stations while city firefighters battled the blaze.
In all, 50 fire vehicles responded. By comparison, a routine house fire requires three quints, a rescue truck and a battalion chief.
The first call reporting the West Broad fire came in at 12:32 p.m., and a unit was on scene two minutes later. That vehicle was a rescue truck on its way back from another call. Men on board saw smoke and rushed toward it.
The crew of five carried a small hose line into the front of the building, not realizing that the rear was engulfed in flames.
A second truck coming from another direction saw the huge flames and called for the crew to evacuate.
A second alarm was called in at 12:40. A third alarm came in at 1:04.
Luckily, construction workers had stopped to eat lunch, so they were not inside the building.
"The building was heavily involved [in flames] very quickly. The fire just rolled through the building," Vida said. "It was wood construction, and you've got to have protection on it when it's done, but they were continuing that process. It burned very well and very quickly. Wind was blowing the fire through the building because it's all wide open."
The quints quickly raised their ladders to work on the fire, which was jumping from the VCU building to neighboring rooftops. The ladders can rotate, which made it easier to reach new fires.
"We'd get one knocked down pretty good and then have to start spraying the next one," Vida said.
One near-casualty of the fire was the VCU School of Fine Arts building.
"That could have been a huge loss," he said. "It's better that this happened during the day in terms of getting people out. But I'm surprised some of [the VCU students] didn't get hurt in the fine arts building. The smoke filled the sky. It was fully involved, a very dangerous situation. We could have had some fire deaths."
No VCU students or faculty were injured, but one security officer complained of chest pains, as did one firefighter. Another firefighter suffered a leg injury, but he's already back on duty.
One woman died after the electrical power to her home was cut and she had not charged the backup to her oxygen supply.
"The winds were 25 to 30 miles an hour. The embers were going everywhere. It was like a meteorite that would swoop down on each roof," Vida said. "It was extremely frustrating for the firefighters. You're making progress and trying to save somebody's home, and the one next to it sets fire. I think under the circumstances, our guys did an outstanding job."