Soot and water still covered Coos Bay Fire Chief Stan Gibson's yellow gear late Monday night when he stared, deadpan, away from the burned-out warehouse that killed three of his firefighters. It wasn't supposed to happen in Coos Bay, he said in a stunned voice.
"I never thought it would happen here," the weary chief said, after darkness set around downtown and artificial lights shined on the blackened building.
Less than 24 hours ago, firefighters with hats in hand and heads bowed formed a single line before the devastated blue structure that once housed Farwest Truck & Auto Supply. Draped in American flags, the bodies of two Coos Bay firefighters were ceremoniously carried out, honored by fellow firefighters and mourned by families, and placed into waiting ambulances. A third firefighter, also of Coos Bay, died after initially being rescued from the blaze earlier during the fight.
Robert "Chuck" Hanners, 33, a Coos Bay resident, died at Bay Area Hospital after being taken from the fire. A volunteer with eight years of experience, he never regained consciousness after being dragged from the blaze. Randall "Randy" Carpenter, 45, a Coos Bay resident and a career firefighter for 15 years, died inside the building. Jeffery "Jeff" E. Common, 30, a Coos Bay resident and volunteer for 12 years at Coos Bay and North Bend, also died inside the burning building.
"I worked with these people. I cared for these people," Gibson said, taking a personal moment that allowed for a glimpse beyond his duty and professionalism.
This morning, the sun rose above a soggy, charred warehouse, revealing the blackened cavity of the store carved out Monday by flames and cordoned off today by yellow police tape. One day after a soaring fire that burned and boomed with explosions, sending thick, bluish-black plumes into the air, the acrid stench of wet smoke still clung to Second Street.
"This is a dangerous job. We know somebody's going to die, but we just never thought it would happen," said an exhausted Lt. Randy Miles, sweat and tears mingling on his face.
It was early Monday afternoon when firefighters responded to a general alarm at 340 South Second St. and found what appeared to be an ordinary call -- light, yellow-brown smoke indicating an average fire but belied the ferocious fire to come.
Owner Kim Macfee said he and employees noticed a light smoke in the store shortly after 1 p.m. After checking the building's rooftop, Macfee said he thought nothing was wrong, but the smoke continued to grow.
By 1:45 p.m., Macfee said the smoke thickened and after calling the fire department and grabbing important data, he, about eight employees and several customers walked out of the store and waited for the fire department to arrive. All were uninjured.
"It started next to a stove in the back, up in the ceiling," Macfee said.
Officially, Coos Bay fire hasn't released information about how or where the fire began.
According to Gibson, the initial response inside the building included two teams of four firefighters, one on the first floor, a second in the attic. A third group walked atop a rooftop that became spongy and malleable from the searing heat.
The incident was dangerous but not out of the ordinary, Gibson said.
"The fire was a fire that we routinely handle," he said.
Unable to find the source of the fire and feeling the increasing temperature, firefighters on the inside became concerned that the blaze was burning in a dead zone between the roof and the top floor ceiling.
Gibson surmised that when firefighters tried to carve an opening in the building's ceiling, trapped gases that had heated found the oxygen they needed to flash into a blaze. The ceiling, floors and walls combusted immediately and possibly caused a rafter to dislodge and cave in on the men.
As the roof fell, Coos Bay firefighters in yellow gear and North Bend crews in black dived out of the building and sprawled along the curbside to count who had been left inside.