Fire swept through a furniture warehouse in Charleston, S.C., collapsing the building's roof and claiming the lives of nine firefighters.
Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley paid tribute to the firefighters, saying they fought the fire with the last full measure of courage and devotion.
"These people will never be forgotten. This time yesterday, they were firefighters. This time today, they are heroic, historic figures in our city," Mayor Riley said during an afternoon press conference.
The nation mourned the nine firefighters who together comprised 100 years of service, ranging from Capt. William "Billy" Hutchinson, a 30-year veteran, to Michael French, an assistant engineer with one-and-a-half years of service. Hutchinson was 48; French was 27 and the youngest to die in the blaze.
Chief Rusty Thomas, of the City of Charleston Fire Dept., thanked the families of the deceased firefighters for their service.
"To the families, you gave them to us and we protected them as much as we could. They did exactly what they were trained to do," Thomas said.
The firefighters rescued two employees from the blaze, which broke out about 7 p.m. Monday in the Sofa Super Store and warehouse.
Overnight, firefighters, police officers and other rescue workers saluted as the bodies of the nine firefighters were carried from the warehouse.
They are the most firefighters to perish in a single fire since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center claimed 343 New York City firefighters, according to Firehouse.com.
Their deaths are "just absolutely heartbreaking," Riley said. "They are a family, they support each other. The grief that they feel cannot be explained or fully understood."
Because firefighters spend so much time together in the stationhouse, they are also bound to grieve together, experts say.
"I lost nine of my best friends," said Chief Thomas. "We got a long road ahead of us but we're going to stand tall."
Charleston firefighter Eric Glover agrees.
"You're always close to the guys because you spend a third of your life with these guys. Every third day you spend 24 hours there, so you get real close," he said in an interview with CNN.
Glover was among a number of firefighters attending a golf benefit tournament earlier Monday for the family of a firefighter who had recently died when the call to respond to the fire at the Sofa Super Store came over their scanners. By the time he arrived, he told CNN, the roof had already collapsed.
"It all happened pretty fast. They didn't really have a chance," Glover said.
Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten disclosed the names of the fallen firefighters but would not release further information about the investigation into their deaths.
"We don't want to leave any stone unturned because these brave men deserve all the information that can be gleaned about their tragic deaths," she said. "And we certainly don't want to miss-serve their families by jumping to any conclusions."
Witnesses said when the roof collapsed, debris was thrown over about two dozen rescue workers while onlookers were hit with flying ash.
"It was like a 30-foot tornado of flames," said Mark Hilton, who was struck in his eye.
Daniel Shahid, a salesman at a nearby car dealership, said firefighters came in asking for towels. "The next thing you know, we were carrying hoses, directing traffic, everybody from the dealership," he said.
The cause of the fire was under investigation.
"A sofa is plenty of fuel," Riley said, referring to how quickly the fire spread.
Rubber products and other materials used to make furniture tend to burn very quickly, fire officials said.
Sofa Super Store advertised sleep sofas and those made from wicker and rattan, aside from a standard upholstered selection.
Arson was not suspected, Rileysaid. The blaze apparently started in a storage area and he said that no sprinklers were in the building to slow the fire.
"This is a profession that we must never take for granted," the mayor said. "There's a fire raging and they go toward it."
Rob Dewey, the department's chaplain, said the firefighters were banding together.
"We're doing some grieving. We're doing some crying. We reach out and let people hug on us," he said.
Outside resources have been called in to help the family members. One of them is the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), which is charged with caring for the survivors of the families of fallen firefighters to provide grief counseling and support helping them reorganize their lives.
The NFFF sent a crisis team — which include a fire chief, behavior specialist, relative of a fallen firefighter, and a firefighter — from Easley, S.C., to Charleston.
"They're there to appraise the situation, advise, and help in any way that they are asked," said NFFF Chairman Hal Bruno. "We also have a survivors' network made up of family members of firefighters who died in the line of duty."
The organization also makes sure that the families apply for all of the things they're entitled to such as the Public Safety Officers' Benefits Program that goes to families of those serving a public agency.
They receive $295,194 per family, according to the Department of Justice, which administers the program.
"Applying for it is complicated but our people have the experience to help them do it," Bruno said.
Written by Lorrie Grant from NPR reports and The Associated Press