A five-alarm fire Tuesday morning gutted Joe's East Coast Car Shop on Center St. in the Riverwest neighborhood and at least four people who lived in artist studios in the building escaped as flames swept through the building.
Two firefighters among the dozens battling the blaze for several hours were taken to Columbia St. Mary's Hospital to be treated for heat exhaustion, Acting Assistant Fire Chief of Operations Dan Lipski said.
Firefighters initially were inside the two- and three-story building at 631 E. Center St. attacking the fire, reported at 9:17 a.m., but they had to retreat outside about 10 minutes later as flames quickly engulfed the ground floor.
As black-and-gray smoke billowed into the sky, firefighters sprayed water on the building and surrounding businesses and homes. At least five ladder trucks were fighting the blaze. One firefighter could be seen on a ladder extended from a truck several stories above the 25,000-square-foot building dousing the flames.
About 11:25 a.m., firefighters re-entered the building and were taking the offensive against the fire that had been burning for more than two hours, Acting Assistant Chief Michael Romas said.
At that time, the incident was upgraded to a five-alarm fire because of the heat, with temperatures in the mid-90s.
But firefighters had to leave the building again as a portion of its floor and roof collapsed, Lipski said.
By 2:12 p.m., the stubborn fire was brought under control.
The repair shop had opened for business as usual Tuesday morning and workers were repairing cars when the fire broke out, Lipski said.
The building, which also has apartments and art galleries and studios, was evacuated safely and no civilian injuries had been reported, he said. "We have no reports of anybody missing," Lipski said.
The more than 120 firefighters faced numerous hazards in battling the blaze, hydraulic fluid, gasoline, oil and oil-change pits, Lipski said.
Dozens of people lined nearby streets to watch as firefighters fought the blaze.
Brittany Rushing, 18, who lives nearby on Pierce St., talked to a woman who escaped the blaze and videotaped the conversation using her smartphone.
Rushing heard sirens about 9:20 a.m. and ran outside to see what was happening. "All of a sudden I see a big, huge black cloud of smoke. I'm like, 'Oh my gosh.' "
That's when she and her mother, Jennifer Rushing, encountered the woman, who was in her pajamas and a robe.
"She said that she was sleeping and she could smell the smoke. But it was coming through the windows. And she said some guy was outside screaming, 'Get out. Get out. There's a fire,' " Brittany Rushing said.
"When they walked downstairs there was just flames everywhere. . . . She easily could have just died," Brittany Rushing said.
Romas said battling the heat also was a major concern for firefighters.
The county offered firefighters the use of two county buses as an air-conditioned haven from the intense heat. Other firefighters were taking water breaks under a nearby tent. Two paramedic unit vehicles also were there to assist firefighters.
Some residents were supplementing those efforts, bringing containers of ice out of their homes to help cool firefighters and other emergency responders. Some bystanders offered police officers and firefighters bottled water.
For the firefighters' safety, the Fire Department told We Energies to deactivate a nearby electrical line, said Brian Manthey, spokesman for the utility company. That cut power to about 4,100 customers starting around 9:30 a.m., he said.
We Energies was able to reroute electricity from other lines to restore power to about 3,330 customers from 10:45 a.m. to 11 a.m., Manthey said. The company hoped to bring electricity back to the remaining 770 customers from 12:30 p.m. to 1 p.m., he said.
The building has housed the car repair shop for years. Joseph F. Fix operated it with his son, Frank, until October, when he died of cancer, said Phil Burns, a family friend who watched as the building burned.