Witnesses describe inferno as AAA center destroyed by fire

Fire at AAA office on Forest Drive (Source: Tim Goldman)
Fire at AAA office on Forest Drive (Source: Tim Goldman)
Forest Drive fire (Source: Jason Old)
Forest Drive fire (Source: Jason Old)

By Taylor Kearns - bio | email

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A fire that sent smoke hundreds of feet into the air and could be seen all over Columbia Monday afternoon is now under control.

Columbia fire crews spent the better part of an hour battling the fire at the AAA Travel Insurance Car Care Center on Forest Drive, between Trenholm Road and Clemson Avenue.

Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins said the fire started just after lunch in the shop in the back of the building. "They actually used an oil heater that uses recycled oil," explained Jenkins. "A worker was in the back, he heard a sound and when he looked up the heater was on fire. Before he could extinguish it, it was too late."

"All of a sudden a customer at the register said, 'is that building always smoking?'" recounted Katie Rook, manager of Be Beep Toys across the street. "And we all said, 'no!'"

Jenkins said the mix of gasoline and other materials in the shop made the fire spread quickly. "By the time we got here, the fire was already burning through the roof and spread to the front part of the building," he said.

A rush of Christmas shoppers turned into a crowd of stunned onlookers as the building went up in smoke. "There was tons of flames," described Rook. "They were coming up over the top of the building, there were cars on fire, all the AAA were trying to get all their cars out of there and their toolboxes."

About 20 people were in the building when the fire started, but Jenkins said they all made it out. The fire caused $2 million in damages, and destroyed seven cars inside the shop.

"We've had a ton of people calling us saying 'are y'all on fire?' and people saying they can't get over here," said Rook.
Rook joined dozens others to watch more than 40 firefighters fight the huge blaze. The smoke could be seen across town. "It was just kinda chaotic, very chaotic," she said.

Traffic on Forest Drive was rerouted and backed up as firefighters worked in the area.

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