Mary Ann Chastain  /  AP
Firefighters and emergency workers clean up at the scene of a deadly motel fire at The Comfort Inn and Suites on Sunday in Greenville, S.C.
updated 1/25/2004 7:16:01 PM ET 2004-01-26T00:16:01

A fire filled a five-story motel with thick, disorienting smoke early Sunday, killing six people and forcing other panicked guests to jump out of windows or climb down bed sheets to safety, authorities said.

At least a dozen people were injured, including at least five in critical condition at a burn unit in Augusta, Ga.

Guests and authorities said smoke filled the motel quickly, sending guests in their pajamas into a chaotic scramble for the exits and a cold rain outside.

“I opened the door and all we saw was smoke,” said Donessa Wilson, who said she and her boyfriend were awakened on the fourth floor by a fire alarm and then heard a woman running down the hall screaming.

The smoke was so thick that one guest jumped from a third-floor window onto a solid canopy when the stairwell was just a few steps away, Greenville County Coroner Parks Evans said. Blood could be seen on the outside walls of the motel near a broken window.

The what-if of hallway sprinklers
The Comfort Inn had standpipes and wall-mounted hoses in the hallways and stairwells, but none had been activated, and no fire extinguishers were used before emergency crews arrived, said Fire Chief Gary Downey. He didn’t know the last time the building was inspected but said it was not required to have sprinklers.

“If there had been sprinkler systems in the hallways, probably the fatalities and injuries would not have been near what they were,” Downey said.The blaze began about 4 a.m. on the third floor of the hotel, which had 46 registered guests. The cause was under investigation.

All the bodies were found on the third floor. A young boy was found lying close to the body of a woman, along with two other women found in the hall, Evans said. Two more people — a man and a woman — were found in separate rooms, Evans said.

The smoke overcame the victims so quickly that at least two of them appeared to have fallen as they were walking or running down the hall, some of them disoriented and moving toward where the fire was most intense, Evans said.

Those injured suffered from smoke inhalation, burns and cuts received trying to get out the windows, Downey said.

Wilson said she called the front desk and was told to escape down the front stairwell.

“We couldn’t see. There were people falling all over each other. We just kept going until we saw some light,” she said.

Smoke and panic
Greenville County Sheriff’s Sgt. Shea Smith said deputies arrived before firefighters and ran into the building to evacuate people, but they couldn’t get past the second floor because of the smoke.“The people that came out of their rooms, they didn’t have much of a chance,” Downey said. “They get the smoke filled in there, and they panic, and panic takes over for them.”

Downey said some people on upper floors lowered themselves to the ground using bed sheets and others jumped from the windows.

Terry Letterman of Spruce Pine, N.C., climbed down from the third floor using a rope made of knotted sheets.

“I wasn’t scared,” he said. “I didn’t have time to be scared.”

“There was fire right outside the window, coming up the wall,” Taran Hurley, who was staying on the fourth floor, told WYFF-TV. “Everybody had wet towels, and we just kind of ran for it down the stairs. We all fell, we tumbled over each other, but we got out that way.”

All the victims appeared to have been sleeping when the fire started, Evans said.

Greenville, the home of Bob Jones University, is about 105 miles northwest of Columbia. A Democratic presidential candidate debate is scheduled in the city this week.

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