NATICK — When Nancy Kelley arrived on South Main Street around 4 a.m. Monday, firefighters told her they would do everything possible to save the dance studio she has operated for 35 years. Her parents helped her find the place in 1984, and worked hard to buy her parquet floors like those used by the Boston Celtics.
But by 9 a.m., Kelley was heartbroken. The fire continued to gain strength throughout the morning until it grew into an eight-alarm blaze that consumed not only the Nancy Kelley Dance Studio but several other businesses in the center of this town in the metrowest area.
“It’s surreal,’’ Kelley said as she watched firefighters from Natick and multiple other communities struggle to bring the fire to an end some eight hours after it was first reported at 1:22 a.m. “I’ve never seen anything like these flames. They were shooting out of the roof.”
“They really tried to save our studio, but the roof fell in,” Kelley said. “I’m heartbroken. I’m in shock. I broke down into tears.’’
Natick Fire Chief Michael P. Lentini told reporters during an afternoon briefing that three firefighters suffered minor injuries.
He described the blaze as a “very stubborn fire” due to the construction of the building. Responding firefighters encountered “heavy smoke,” when they first arrived on scene, Lantini said.
“Everything passes through here. The kids know this street so well,” said Natick resident Sofi Nathaniel, who said she loves eating at King Wok and attending concerts in the Natick common right across the street.
Having passed the scores of firefighters and concerned neighbors three or four times by 1 p.m. on Monday, taking her daughter to and from summer school, Nathaniel said she was surprised by how stubborn the fire was. “It just keeps going on and on,” she said.
The fire scene is near the intersections of Routes 27 and 135 and the parcels are owned by separate business entities, according to town records.
“This is a keystone property in our downtown, which we are actively looking to revitalize,’’ Town Administrator Melissa Malone said. “This is obviously a challenge. There’s a desire for the town as a whole to have a vibrant downtown. This is unfortunate, but doesn’t change the goals we have as a community.”
Malone noted that firefighters from at least 15 surrounding towns assisted as part of the area’s mutual aid agreements. Three firefighters were treated and released for minor injuries, she said.
“It’s times like this that you recognize what you’d do for your neighbors,’’ she said.
Malone said the town will work with the impacted business owners and property owners to assist in any way they can in the future.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, said Natick Acting Fire Chief Daniel Dow who added that investigators from the state fire marshal’s office are now participating in the investigation. He said the design of the interior of the building — originally constructed in 1900 — may have contributed to the spread of the flames.
The interior is “very cut up. That was one of the problems when we made it into the basement. We were running into different walls and stuff. We could never really find the scene of the fire,” he said. “So the decision was made to pull everybody out.”
The 13,000-square-foot building had a rubber membrane for a roof, he said, that was eventually consumed by flames. “Once that collapsed, then we had fire that’s up underneath that,’’ he said. “Eventually, once we get most of it knocked down, we’re going have to start taking the building apart.”
He said the fire generated vasts amounts of smoke. “It’s been a very smoky fire,” said Dow, adding firefighters worked about 30 minutes before being forced to install a new oxygen tank. “Every company on scene was operating on air. . . . It’s a manpower intensive fire.”
He said that while the cause is under investigation there was no indication that the fire was suspicious in origin. Investigators are focusing on a Chinese restaurant, King Wok, as the source of the fire.
Standing next to Kelley at the scene was a more fortunate business owner, Suzanne “Doc” Cosmos, who operates Cosmos Chiropractor Care in an adjacent building that did not catch fire but still had some smoke damage. “By the grace of God, I was spared,” Cosmos said.
Cosmos said that even though her building survived, she feels deeply for those like Kelley who will somehow have to start over. “We see each other more than we’re home. We bring each other snacks,’’ Cosmos said, recalling how Cindy, the owner of King Wok, would bring her egg rolls. “We truly love each other. That’s why it hurts.”
Cosmos and Kelley said they believe an antique store and a graphics store both moved out of the building within the past three weeks. But, they said, the King Wok restaurant and its owners are among those who lost it all.
By mid-afternoon, construction equipment was on site, tearing down what was left of the charred structures.
“There is so much change in this town. This is it,” Cosmos said, tearing up as she watched the excavactor demolish what remained of the Christian Science Reading Room.
Jay Lane, a Natick native who lives nearby and also operates Flowers by the Depot, said he was standing on his front steps early Monday morning, waiting for his daughter to be dropped off, when he noticed the powerful fire.
“It kind of looked like the apocalypse,’’ said the 32-year-old Lane. “I’ve lived here my entire life. To see an entire block burn down is pretty sad.’’
“It’s another childhood landmark,’’ he said. “These are all small businesses that have been here a long time.”
His mother and daughter bought yarn from the Iron Horse knitting supplies shop and he’d run into neighbors at King Wok where he always ordered the D3 off the menu.
“They have these really awesome combo plates that are affordable for working people,’’ he said. “This is going to ruin business for months.”
Lane stepped away from the intensely smoky air and walked over to his flower shop, where he would prepare floral vases for a small funeral that day.
In between greeting firefighters who she had grown up with, Jessica Forshner, a 35-year-old teacher who lives down the street, said it was uplifting to see individuals and businesses donating food to feed the firefighters.
“That’s what this community does. You try to take care of each other,” Forshner said. “Hopefully we can do that for the businesses too.”
Emily Sweeney and John R. Ellement of the Globe Staff, and Globe correspondent Alyssa Lukpat contributed to this report.