Story Highlights• Witness describes "30-foot tornado of flames"
• Car dealership employees help with hoses, traffic
• Fire chiefs' group calls for moment of silence for nine dead at 7 p.m. ET
• Deaths in warehouse fire called single greatest loss of firefighters since 9/11
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CHARLESTON, South Carolina (CNN) -- An inferno raced through a Charleston, South Carolina, furniture warehouse, collapsing its roof and killing nine firefighters in a tragedy that the city's mayor described Tuesday as "difficult to fathom."
"They lost their lives fighting for the safety of our citizens," Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said.
Two employees were able to get out safely, but the fire, which began Monday night, quickly spread through the Sofa Super Store, causing part of the building to collapse. (Map)
Firefighters had to break an opening in the back of the store to allow one of the workers out of the burning building, Riley said. (Gallery)
"Nine brave, heroic, courageous firefighters of the city of Charleston have perished fighting a fire, and in a most courageous and fearless manner, carrying out their duties," Riley said. "This is a tragic event for our community, the magnitude of which is difficult to fathom or quantify." (Watch a witness describe firefighters escaping through windows )
The International Association of Fire Chiefs called on all firefighters to observe a moment of silence at 7 p.m. ET Tuesday to honor the nine who died.
The victims, their ages and their years of service are:
"We lost over a hundred years of service to the city of Charleston Fire Department, over a hundred years of dedicated service," Riley said. "To the families who gave them to us, we protected them as much as we could. They did exactly what they were trained to do. I can't say enough of these nine guys. They were my friends. I lost nine of my best friends."
Witnesses said more than 20 fire personnel were buried in the collapse, and flying ash hit bystanders, according to AP.
"It was like a 30-foot tornado of flames," Mark Hilton, who was struck in the eye, told The Associated Press.
Near Charleston's main firehouse, people left notes and flowers at the base of a monument to the firefighters Tuesday, according to AP.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with all of you and your families," said one note the AP cited. "We are deeply saddened and want you all to know that we value your bravery and thank you for putting your lives on the line to keep us all safe. God bless you all."
In Washington, President Bush and first lady Laura Bush described the firefighters as "true heroes who demonstrated great skill and courage."
State and federal officials are investigating the cause of the fire, but Riley said there is no initial indication of foul play or arson.
Firefighters and other rescue workers formed a double line and saluted as their comrades' bodies were carried from the charred remains of the building. (Watch colleagues' solemn salutes as the fallen firefighters' bodies are brought out )
"To lose nine is just a tragedy of immense proportions," Riley said. "To lose nine is just unbelievable."
The deaths are the single greatest loss of American firefighters in the line of duty since the September 11, 2001, attacks, according to statistics compiled by firehouse.com. The attack on New York's World Trade Center resulted in the deaths of 343 firefighters.
The mayor said he didn't know whether the structure had sprinklers, but he said they would not have helped much. "A fire that gets going quickly enough is beyond any sprinkler system's capacity to put it out in a building like this," Riley said.
Store owner Herb Goldstein told the AP in a statement that everyone at the business is "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."
It is the first time Charleston has lost a firefighter in the line of duty in at least 10 years, Charleston firefighter Lt. Chad Watson said.
Most of the bodies were found in the rear of the building, Watson said, where flames caused the collapse of large shelves that held heavy furniture.
"The fire burned so hot so fast that those [shelves] all collapsed, and that's where the majority of the fatalities" occurred, Watson said.
Eric Glover, a Charleston firefighter who worked the blaze, said the loss of his colleagues was difficult to bear.
Glover and other firefighters were participating in a golf tournament to benefit the family of another colleague who recently had died when they were alerted about Monday's blaze. The building's roof had collapsed by the time Glover arrived.
"You're always close to the guys because you spend a third of your life with these guys," Glover said. "Then you spend time outside of the job with them. You're pretty close."
Daniel Shahid, who works at a nearby car dealership, told AP that dealership employees helped carry hoses and direct traffic. He said the fire quickly spread throughout the building, which collapsed less than 30 minutes after the blaze began.
"It collapsed so fast that there was no opportunity for anybody that was in there to even think about getting out," Shahid told CNN's "American Morning."
He told AP he saw firefighters rescue four people from the building.
"They were struggling. They were covered in black soot. They looked scared out of their minds," he told AP.
The collapse "came from nowhere," Shahid told CNN. "It was a standing structure, and five seconds later it was on the ground."
Copyright 2007 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.
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