SOUTHAMPTON came to a standstill after a blaze tore through four business in minutes.

Seventy-nine firefighters descended on Empress Road shortly before midday as a building housing car garages and repair shops burst into flames.

Police, the ambulance service and fire crews closed nearby roads as thick black smoke poured from the rooftops yesterday.

No one was injured in the blaze, with one business, J S Autos, having cars destroyed and windows smashed after the roof of the building collapsed.

Owner of the business, Jhalman Rai, said: “It’s 40 years of business down the drain. It’s a family business and it happened so fast. I was coming back from a test drive and the business next door, people were working on a car.

“Smoke started coming from it and then all of a sudden it just went up, flames everywhere and we had to get out.”

Kaldeep Rai, the director of the company said: “We don’t know the extent of the damage at the moment, our heads are all over the place.”

Crews raced to the scene at 11.50am, with engines from St Mary’s, Redbridge, Hightown, Eastleigh and Cosham all battling the blaze.

Kevin Evenett, Incident Commander said: “There were multiple businesses affected and it appears that they were all interlinked. We had 79 personnel on scene and ten pumps and fortunately everyone was out and okay when we arrived.

“It’s definitely a reasonable size incident and that thick black smoke is tyres, grime and oil. Cars were involved in the fire but we don’t know how many, and the roof of the building has collapsed in on itself.

“The building is very close to others, so that fact it hasn’t spread means some fantastic work was done by the early responders. It’s too early to determine what caused the fire, but we know that tyres, cars and garage electricals were involved.”

One nearby pub, the Shooting Star, offered free drinks for the firefighters as they spent more than five hours trying to contain the flames.

The street filled with bystanders, who were advised to close their doors and windows by the ambulance service, as the smoke could be seen as far away as Hythe.

Bevois Valley Road was closed in both directions between Onslow Road and Thomas Lewis Way as cordons were set up to keep onlookers safe.

Sean Collins, who works at nearby car garage TyreWork, said the flames quickly turned fierce.

He said: “The firefighters only took about 15 minutes to get here. It was just smoke to start with but then the flames got quite fierce.

“There were bangs and huge flames, you don’t expect all of this, but we’re not worried about our business.”

Southampton City Councillor Sharon Mintoff, who is also a member of the Hampshire Fire and Rescue Authority, praised the work of the firefighters.

Cllr Mintoff said: “They again have proven to be very brave and have done an incredible job to contain the fire. The buildings seem to be together, so to keep it to just those and not let it spread is fantastic work.

“I am also glad to hear that everyone was safe and no firefighters were injured either, as that is always a worry.”