The base, at Magherafelt, Co Londonderry, has been attacked several times by the IRA in the past, but senior Army officers believe the fire was started accidentally and engulfed the portable wooden barracks in minutes.
Two of the men, full-time members of the 5th Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment, died instantly. A third died in hospital.
The blaze began in the early hours when about 40 members of C Company were resting between patrols. Some were talking or watching television, but it is believed that those trapped in the accommodation block by the flames, and ammunition exploding in the intense heat, were sleeping.
Colleagues were unable to help in the rescue because the fire had taken hold before it was discovered. But fire crews from Magherafelt and Cookstown, Co Tyrone, managed to confine the fire to one room and were able to rescue two of the survivors.
Divisional Officer Dave Blair said that the exploding ammunition from weapons hindered them because only a few could enter the building at a time. 'It was a little bit hair- raising, for a few moments. In the end we just got in and out as quickly as possible.'
The injured were taken to the Mid-Ulster Hospital, where they were treated for burns and the effects of smoke.
An Army spokeswoman said that a full investigation had been started. Initial indicators pointed to an accident rather than terrorist involvement.
The regiment was formed in 1992 with the amalgamation of the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Rangers. Lt Col John Potter, the battalion's commanding officer, and the Rev William McCrea, Democratic Unionist MP for Mid-Ulster, praised firemen for their bravery. Lt Col Potter also praised the men who had died for their 'sterling service to the regiment and to the community'. They had completed an operational duty only a few hours earlier.
A Roman Catholic man was in a critical condition in hospital after being ambushed by loyalists in the cycle of violence that has gripped the province for the past week.
The man, aged 39, was ambushed by gunmen from the outlawed Ulster Freedom Fighters at a business centre close to a leisure complex at Newtownabbey, Co Antrim.
The incident came as police and troops prepared to recover the body of an alleged informer murdered by the IRA near the Irish border, the tenth victim of sectarian violence in nine days.
A man died in a house fire at Irvine, Strathclyde, yesterday despite attempts to rescue him by a neighbour and four policemen, who were treated in hospital for the effect of smoke.
Firemen recovered the body of Colin Gordon, 34, who was asleep when the fire broke out in his home.
The alarm was raised by Mr Gordon's wife, Tracy, who was woken by a fire alarm and managed to grab her 15-month-old daughter, Chantalle, and flee the house.Reuse content