Flames broke out on Southern Boulevard in Longwood around 9:30 p.m. yesterday.
Fire officials say that units were on the scene quickly, found a heavy smoke condition and then forced their way in to fight the flames.
"We found heavy fire in one of the stores. We were starting to attack the fire," said FDNY Assistant Chief Thomas Galvin. "It appears the fire was burning for a period of time already then got into what we call the 'cockloft area,' the common ceiling area above all the stores. Once we started pulling the ceilings we had a rapid extension of fire. For the safety of the firefighters we pulled them out and go to an exterior attack."
"The smell was so crazy, like two hours it took for the smell to go away. It was really suffocating," said a local. About 170 firefighters took two hours to finish off the fire, yet smouldering hotspots still posed a threat long after the morning rush ended.
Only two people suffered minor injuries from smoke inhalation and were treated in local hospitals. No firemen were harmed.
The most heavily damaged businesses were Ponce de Leon Bank, Boulevard Shoes, a men's clothing store and Rincon Music, a destination for music lovers for years.
Gary Pinero, who owned his jewelery store on the same stretch of block for 15 years, said firefighters warned him that while his store is safe, at least one store is not due to a warped wall.
"They're considering this as a demolition zone because the wall is arching down this way," said Pinero.
An apartment building next door to the row of stores had to be evacuated, but officials determined that it had no structural damaged and residents were let back in this morning.
Southern Boulevard has been closed to traffic, and Bx5 and Bx19 buses have been re-routed.
The fire was not deemed suspicious, but the investigation is ongoing after fire marshals inspected the scene overnight.