Sunday, July 11, 2010 A five-alarm fire destroyed half a block in the heart of the downtown business district today and sent more than 20 firefighters to the hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation, heat exhaustion and a few with heart palpitations.

A woman also was taken to White Plains Hospital Center with heat exhaustion.

The stubborn, smoky blaze began in the basement of the landmark Bengal Tiger restaurant at 140 E. Post Road and spread to neighboring businesses including the popular Latin American Cafe, a shoe store and a dry cleaners.

“The roof has collapsed, and half the block is lost,” Public Safety Commissioner David Chong said. “The firewall at the Bengal Tiger appears to have saved the other half of the block, toward Mamaroneck Avenue.”

The fire was reported about 2:35 p.m. and continued to burn more than six hours later, with flames shooting through the roof and thick, pungent smoke billowing high into the sky, where it was visible for miles.

More than 60 firefighters from White Plains and nearby communities battled the blaze on another scorching day with temperatures around 100 degrees. The fire was under control at 9 p.m.

At one point, three ladder trucks and a tower ladder surrounded the building, pouring water onto the roof, which collapsed about 5:30 p.m. Earlier, the tower ladder bucket had to be quickly moved when flames suddenly threatened a firefighter aiming a hose at the roof. Eventually, hoses on all four ladders were maneuvered remotely from the ground. Other firefighters directed water to the ground floor of the Bengal Tiger, which was engulfed in flames.

Fire Chief Richard Lyman said 19 city firefighters were taken to a hospital for smoke inhalation and heat-related injuries, but that none was serious. Six firefighters from other departments also were taken to a hospital, he said.

A few firefighters were seen placed on stretchers later and taken to ambulances.

At 7:50 p.m., a manhole in front of Haiku Asian Bistro at 149 Mamaroneck Ave. exploded and sent flames shooting out. People who were in the area to watch the nearby firefighting efforts scattered. Lyman said the explosion was unrelated to the fire.

“We were able to handle this fire quite well for the size of the fire,” Lyman said about 8 p.m. “The heat definitely slowed the process.”

The chief urged residents to conserve water to help keep up the water pressure for firefighters.

Firefighters also put out a fire at a Consolidated Edison substation on New Street.

Chong said every piece of fire apparatus in the city was being used in the two fires and that off-duty firefighters were called back to work.

Even with the mutual aid provided by neighboring fire departments, “We don’t have enough firefighters here because of the injuries,” Chong said.

The city laid off nine firefighters and 12 police officers two months ago because of budget cuts. Mayor Adam Bradley, who spent much of the afternoon at the scene, had no comment on the layoffs but praised the efforts of the firefighters and police officers.

“Watching them work, in this excruciating heat, is just amazing,” Bradley said. “The whole city owes them a debt of gratitude. They are exhausted; we are thankful.”

Joe Carrier, president of the city fire union, said the fire “is the perfect example of what happens when you don’t have the manpower. Seconds are everything in this business, and we didn’t have the type of response that was needed. This is exactly why we need all 169 firefighters we’re supposed to have.”

The cause of the fire was not immediately known.

Firefighters from Fairview, Hartsdale, Greenville, New Rochelle, Scarsdale and North White Plains assisted the White Plains department.

Chong said all of the business employees and patrons escaped unharmed. Many injured firefighters were treated at the scene by TransCare ambulance workers under a canopy put up across the street or in air-conditioned Bee-Line buses that were brought in to allow exhausted first responders a cool place to recover. Others were taken to nearby White Plains Hospital Center.

Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers passed out water, ice and towels to grateful emergency workers.

As the fire grew, vendors at the city’s weekly farmers market, located in a parking lot behind the row of burning stores, held towels and napkins to their mouths as they scrambled to dismantle their stands and pack up their fruits and vegetables.

“I’m worried less about my fruit and more about my own self,” said Todd Doria, an employee from Westchester Greenhouse in Hartsdale.

Shortly before 9 p.m., Vincent Reda, owner of Euro Pizzeria at 120 E. Post Road, distributed free pizzas to police and firefighters.

“We’re about to close, and I’m giving out what I had left,” he said.

Bengal Tiger opened in 1974 as the first Indian restaurant in the county and has doubled in size since then. In late 2008, the restaurant filed for bankruptcy protection for the second time in five years because of dwindling profits.

 Photo by Carucha L. Meuse

 Photo by Carucha L. Meuse