Firefighters bring five-alarm fire near 12th & Vliet under control

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MILWAUKEE -- As many as 150 Milwaukee firefighters brought a five-alarm fire in a commercial building containing a grocery store near 12th and W. Vliet Street under control. The structure is just west of the downtown area. Fire broke out just after 8:00 a.m. Wednesday, June 20th, and over half of the city's fire crews were called in to fight the fire. Now, rubble is all that remains of the building.

"What am I gonna do? This is my business. This is my livelihood here -- but I am glad nobody was hurt. That's the main thing," "Food Castle" owner Jamal Silmi said.

Wednesday's fire completely destroyed Silmi's "Food Castle" grocery store. Silmi told FOX6 News one of two people inside the store was taking trash out back Wednesday morning, when they spotted smoke.

"He said he came and seen in the back, there was smoke coming out. He rushed to my brother and he told him there was smoke coming out, and to get out of the building," Silmi said.

Willie Warrior was one of two or three people who were working inside the "Food Castle" store on Wednesday.

"I heard a spark and then I noticed a big plume of smoke from the back, and it just consumed the building instantly -- just flames everywhere," Warrior said.

One firefighter was hurt while battling the fire. Officials say the firefighter was being evaluated -- possibly for twisting an ankle. The injury is considered minor.

Officials said the biggest concern for the firefighters was Wednesday's heat. Heat exhaustion can set in early, and paramedics were on the scene, monitoring the firefighters closely.

Officials said the roof and three exterior walls of the roughly 100-year-old building collapsed as a result of the fire. Firefighters said this actually helped, because the building was structurally unstable -- and fire officials would not be sending any of their teams directly inside.

The fire spread quickly because of the way buildings were constructed years ago. The building was made from heavy timber -- a perfect fuel for fire.

Initially, firefighters heard the fire was in a vacant building. Later reports indicated there were some workers from a grocery store inside the structure.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) said the northbound and southbound lanes of I-43 near WIS 145 were affected due to heavy smoke from the structure fire. The Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office urged motorists traveling on I-43 to slow down and exercise caution.

Brian Manthey from WE Energies said 93 customers were affected by power outages. The utility dropped power at the request of the Milwaukee Fire Department.

The utility was working to reconfigure the power grid in the area to restore power to customers.

Milwaukee Deputy Fire Chief Randy Zingler said while some may believe they know how the fire started, it is still too early in the investigation to determine an official cause.

"Who knows how long it had been burning before someone actually saw it and reported it. Sometimes fires go unchecked for a period of time. As to why and how, at this point, it is too hard to speculate on that," Zingler said.

Zingler told FOX6 News he is proud of the firefighters' efforts, considering the circumstances.

"Everybody is fine. We're very proud of the fact that with a five-alarm fire and 90-degree heat, no injuries to report," Zingler said.

Arson investigators were on the scene investigating and trying to determine the fire's cause, but Zingler said they may have a tough time because the damage is so severe that evidence of the fire's origin may be destroyed.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele said the Elizabeth M. Coggs building near 12th and Vliet will remain closed until Monday, June 25th for cleanup of smoke and soot from the fire.

Monitor FOX6 News and for updates on this developing story.