WINONA, Minn. (AP) — Three buildings were a total loss in Friday’s blaze that damaged five total buildings including numerous businesses, apartments and even a mosque in an older part of downtown Winona, Fire Chief Curt Bittle said.
Bittle said the fire apparently began in the Winona Islamic Center several hours before it was reported around 2 a.m. Friday. He said center’s roof had already collapsed when firefighters arrived. Arson hasn’t been ruled out, so if there’s any hint the Islamic Center was targeted, investigators have already been in touch with state and federal authorities to assist.
Laui El-Faki lived above the Islamic Center.
“I don’t know where the fire started, but I saw fire all around the area,” he said.
The fire chief expressed relief that nobody was hurt and that the destruction wasn’t worse.
“At one point I really thought we were going to lose the entire block,” Bittle said.
Firefighters contained the blaze by mid-morning after six hours of fighting, and crews knocked down some storefronts to extinguish the debris.
Of the three destroyed buildings, one housed the Islamic Center and another housed the Brosnahan Law Firm. The fire also displaced more than a dozen residents of upstairs apartments. The Red Cross was assisting them.
Officials did not have a damage estimate.
Mayor Mark Peterson, who is also director of the Winona County Historical Society, said it was sad to lose historic buildings. But he said he’s proud of all of those who helped contain the fire.
“We’re going to do what we can to get this cleaned up. It could have been a lot worse than it was,” Peterson said.
Ahmed El-Afandi, a retired political science professor at Winona State University who founded the Islamic Center, said there had been no threats against the mosque.
Buildings that house Sole Sport, Blooming Grounds and Integrative Health also were among those heavily damaged.
Paul Brosnahan said his law office was a total loss, “but fortunately, our business records are all backed up electronically off-site.”
The fire “got into an attic, and it was jumping from building to building,” he said, relaying information he received from fire officials. “I had an apartment with three young (Winona State University) sophomores. Fortunately, all three young girls are safe.”
Jake Lindberg, who also lived above the law office, said all of his belongings were inside.
“I like some of the things I have,” he told the Winona Daily News as he looked at sooty water pouring from the building’s front entrance. “But I like life more.”
As the search for the cause goes on, so do the hunt for new homes.
“What do you do now?” Winona State student Emma Wallace said. “I’ll try to get in and get our stuff like our new laptops, because we heard there was soot an inch or two thick.”