GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Fire broke out in a five-story hotel early yesterday while guests were asleep, killing six people and forcing others to leap from windows or climb down bedsheets to safety, authorities said. At least a dozen people were injured, including five in critical condition at a burn unit in Augusta, Ga. A spokeswoman for the center said a sixth person was expected to be flown there when the weather improved.
Guests and authorities said smoke filled the hotel quickly, sending guests wearing pajamas into a chaotic scramble for the exits and into the cold rain.
"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 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 Wade Hampton's fire chief, Gary Downey. He said the approximately 20-year-old building passed its most recent inspection less than a year ago and 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, Greenville County Coroner Parks 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 seemed 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 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," he said. "We just kept going until we saw some light."
Greenville County Sheriff's Sergeant Shea Smith said deputies arrived before the firefighters and ran into the building to evacuate people. They could not get past the second floor because of the smoke, Smith said. Downey said some people on the upper floors reached the ground using bedsheets and others jumped from windows.