PORTAGE | Lou Rodriguez was working with one of his employees Monday when they heard a loud "pop" come from another area of his automotive shop.
When they investigated, Rodriguez said, they saw flames. Both grabbed fire extinguishers.
"We tried to put it out, but it was moving too fast," Rodriguez said as he stood outside National Transmission, 5475 U.S. 6, and watched firefighters from multiple departments try to douse the fire.
Smoke from the blaze, which erupted about noon and consumed the shop, could be seen as far away as Valparaiso. Traffic was snarled along U.S. 6 on the city's west side as firefighters poured water from three aerial trucks onto the building. The shop is on the south side of U.S. 6 about a half-mile west of Swanson Road. Motorists were diverted from U.S. 6 between Swanson and County Line roads.
Rodriguez, who has operated the business since 1991, said there were seven cars in the shop at the time of the fire. He said he had no idea how the fire could have started.
Rodriguez said the employee was transported to a local hospital after inhaling a "big gulp" of smoke. The employee's condition was unknown Monday.
Portage Fire Chief Tom Fieffer said two people were taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation, but he did not know their condition. A firefighter also was transported to a local hospital for heat exhaustion.
The building was a total loss, Fieffer said. It took firefighters more than three hours to extinguish the blaze, and, because of the extensive damage, the building was knocked to the ground. The fire escalated to a three-alarm, compelling Porter County fire departments north of U.S. 6 to respond to the scene.
The cause of the fire may never be known, Fieffer said, because of the damage to the building.
Fieffer said Verona Pizza just to the east sustained some smoke damage and possibly exterior damage to the west side of the building. Vehicles on a car lot immediately to the west of National Transmission also may have sustained some damage.
"They did a real good job," Fieffer said of firefighters' effort to prevent the fire from spreading to adjacent businesses.