CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) _ More than a dozen firefighters who rushed into the burning furniture superstore knew _ or thought they knew _ two things: employees were trapped inside and the blaze was small enough to control.
But within moments, flames swept across the warehouse, blowing out windows and eventually collapsing the roof in a twisted mass of brown steel. Nine men were killed in the nation's biggest loss of firefighters since 9/11.
``I lost nine of my best friends,'' said Fire Chief Rusty Thomas, choking back tears Tuesday. ``To the families, you gave them to us, and we protected them as best as we could.''
The cause of the fire Monday night at the Sofa Super Store, and exactly how the men were killed, were under investigation, but officials said arson was not suspected.
One fire captain said the men might have fallen victim to a flashover, in which superhot gases heat a building and its contents so intensely that they literally burst into flames.
Buildings that contain a lot of furniture are especially vulnerable, because of the wood lacquer, polyurethane foam and other combustible materials that can reach flashover at a relatively low temperature _ sometimes within minutes of a fire's outset.
Other officials, however, said the roof collapse might have killed the firefighters.
The fire chief said there was no indication his firefighters did anything wrong. ``They did exactly what they were trained to do,'' Thomas said.
The blaze plunged the city of 106,000 and its 237 surviving firefighters into mourning.
Through the night, firefighters, police officers and other rescue workers saluted as the firefighters' bodies were carried from the smoldering ruins, with the last victim removed around daybreak.
Some firefighters wept. Some fell to their knees, others held their heads in their hands, or sat slumped on the bumpers of their firetrucks, their faces etched with grief and exhaustion.
Later in the day, as mourners left flowers outside fire stations and state officials ordered flag lowered, firefighters draped an American flag over a sign near the front of the store.
Many in the department said emotions were too raw to talk about the tragedy.
``I can't say much without crying,'' said one firefighter gathered in a station mess hall.
Officials said the fire started in a storage area of the Sofa Super Store, a huge showroom and warehouse on a commercial strip of car dealerships and body shops locals refer to as the ``Auto Mile.'' The first emergency calls came in at about 7 p.m., and firefighters were told two employees were trapped.
Later Tuesday, however, the fire chief said only one employee was believed trapped. The employee made it out alive, Thomas said, but he said it was unclear it was firefighters who rescued him.
Firefighters searching for victims and trying to battle the fire picked their way amid rows of sofas and mattresses stacked five and six high on racks in the cavernous warehouse, a corrugated-metal structure next to a gas station.
``It was burning everything. As fast as they would put out one side, another hot spot would pop up,'' said Lesley Broughton, who lives in the neighborhood and works as a clerk at a convenience store near the gutted furniture store. ``Then glass started breaking and they told everybody to get back and finally it was just an inferno.''
Capt. Jeff Harrison said his firefighters were trying to knock down the flames when they apparently flashed over.
``When they called it in, the fire wasn't all that large at the time,'' said Harrison, who lost three of his crew in the fire. ``By the time they got there and got inside, they were just trying to make an attack on it and it got enough oxygen in there and flashed over and the whole building went up in flames.''
The nine firefighters _ all men _ ranged in age from 27 to 56, with anywhere from 18 months to 32 years on the job. Officials said their bodies were found in various places around the gutted building.
``To lose nine is just a tragedy of immense proportions,'' Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said. ``To lose nine is just unbelievable.''
The building had no fire sprinklers and was not required o have them. The fire chief said sprinklers would not have put out the fire but would have at least slowed it.
The mayor said the one-story warehouse had a drop ceiling that contained lots of oxygen, and that, along with the combustible furniture, made it ``a much more complicated building from a firefighting event than one might imagine.''
It was the nation's biggest loss of firefighters since the Sept. 11 attacks, which killed 340 firefighters. It was the deadliest fire in South Carolina since a 1979 blaze killed 11 people in the Lancaster County jail.
``These firefighters were true heroes who demonstrated great skill and courage. Their unwavering commitment to their neighbors and to the city of Charleston is an inspiration to all Americans,'' President Bush said in a statement.
Officials identified the victims as Capt. William ``Billy'' Hutchinson, 48; Capt. Mike Benke, 49; Capt. Louis Mulkey, 34; Mark Kelsey, 40; Bradford ``Brad'' Baity, 37; Michael French, 27; James ``Earl'' Drayton, 56; Brandon Thompson, 27; and Melven Champaign, 46.
One of Mulkey's cousins said football and basketball players that he coached at a high school had gathered at the firefighter's home.
``He loved it. He was doing what he loved,'' said Kelly Lax, a 41-year-old cousin. ``Everybody's doing what they can do. It's been hard. He had a lot friends. He influenced a lot of people.''
Store owner Herb Goldstein said in a statement: ``All of us at Sofa Super Store are devastated and heartbroken by this tragedy. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and loved ones of the heroic firefighters who lost their lives.''