Despite frantic efforts to save them, two men died Sunday evening when an apartment was engulfed in flames and dense smoke that held rescuers at bay until firefighters arrived.

"I tried to get to them - I couldn't do it, I couldn't get inside," said John Anderson, who owns the Central City four-plex where the two men were killed.Rodney N. Curtis, 60, and Byron Eugene Gurr, 63, both residents of the apartment at 758 E. 600 South, were unconscious when they were pulled out of the flames by firefighters and were declared dead at University Hospital.

Neighbors spotted smoke billowing out of windows and the roof of the two-story structure at 5:40 p.m. and alerted the Salt Lake City Fire Department. Anderson, who lives around the corner from his four-plex, was also notified and rushed to the scene.

"I had just been there to do some work 10 minutes earlier," Anderson told reporters. "Someone saw me and said, `Hey, your place is on fire,' and I went back."

He said he attempted to enter the burning unit but got no closer than the landing. "The flames were 3 feet high and there was thick smoke all the way up to the ceiling." Forced away, he grabbed a garden hose and tried again.

"I made a run at it, but I couldn't get in," Anderson said, adding that he got no response when he yelled to the two men. "I couldn't see them; I couldn't even get close."

Gurr and Curtis occupied separate units at the four-plex but were friends and often visited each other, Anderson said. The fire occurred in Gurr's apartment.

Battalion Chief Gordon Nicholl said investigators traced the origin of the blaze to a garbage can in the kitchen, but they had not determined Sunday night what ignited it.

"We don't know yet if it was a cigarette or something else. That's still under investigation," Nicholl said.

Firefighters arrived within minutes of the call and managed to enter the apartment and find the two victims. Paramedics administered emergency treatment to the men, rushing Gurr to the hospital immediately while continuing efforts to revive Curtis at the scene.

Both appeared to have succumbed to smoke inhalation, said Nicholl, adding that neither was badly burned. None of the other tenants of the four-plex was injured.

Nicholl said the first firefighters on the scene found heavy smoke and fire inside the apartment with the flames spreading rapidly into the attic. Four engine companies, a ladder truck and a number of other emergency vehicles were involved in battling the blaze.

With dozens of neighbors looking on, firefighters clambered over the roof of the building with chain saws, cutting holes to gain access to the fast-moving flames.

"They had a difficult time fighting this fire," Nicholl said. "Of course, the first priority was getting the occupants out, and then it was a matter of chasing the fire through the attic."

Firefighters doused the flames before they reached other units, Nicholl said. Damage was estimated at about $30,000.