MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO/AP) – A father is grieving after losing five of his seven children to a fire that engulfed the top floors of a north Minneapolis duplex.
Janice Stanford, who witnessed the pre-dawn fire on the 2800 block of Colfax Avenue North, said she could hear Troy Lewis’ screams as he tried to save his children.
“We couldn’t see anything,” she said. “All we could hear was this terrible holler…it was terrible.”
Fire crews were called to the scene at around 5 a.m. Upon arrival, they found heavy smoke coming from the duplex’s second and third floors. The smoke quickly changed to fire.
“They made entry into the structure under very, very, very precarious conditions,” said Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel.
Crews were able to get several people out of the home, but the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office said five children died. Fire officials say three of the children died at the scene. Other victims, including Lewis, were taken to either North Memorial Medical Center or Hennepin County Medical Center for treatment.
Lewis was in satisfactory condition at HCMC Friday night, suffering from smoke inhalation. He spoke to WCCO-TV by phone about his children, two of which he pulled to safety. Their names are Shaca, 9, and Electra, 6; both were in critical condition Friday night.
“All I can say is that they were beautiful children,” Lewis said, recalling those he lost. “Should have never moved into that house.”
He said smoke and flame woke him Friday morning, and he could hear his kids calling for help.
“I kept hearing them holler,” he said. “And then it got quiet, and I couldn’t reach them.”
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Lewis lived on the duplex’s upper level with the seven kids, ages 1 to 9. The children’s mother died in November from an illness.
Fifteen people total lived in the duplex, fire officials said.
Brandi Craig, who lives across the street, watched as firefighters tried to rescue the children. She said the residents of the duplex’s lower unit were able to get out, but the children on the top floors were screaming as the fire raged on.
“Once they stopped screaming, it was over,” she said.
Craig and her fiance brought the kids some soda pop on Thursday night.
“We gave them hugs and kisses and told them we’d see them in the morning,” she said.
Instead she woke up and the house was engulfed in flames, a blaze already too dangerous for her to do anything but watch as firefighters broke down the door and tried to rescue the kids. She saw them bring two apparently deceased children from the building. At that point, she said, she couldn’t watch anymore.
“It just took everything away from me,” she said.
Crews were able to get the fire under control by 7 a.m.
“This is clearly a tragedy for the City of Minneapolis,” said Mayor Betsy Hodges. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of this fire and to the friends, family, everybody affected. The entire community is affected by this fire.”
Three adults and four children displaced by the fire are being assisted by the American Red Cross. Fire officials said the building had been inspected as recently as last fall, with all codes being up-to-date. The owner of the property said Lewis and his family moved into the building six to eight months ago.
Lachonce Buckner, who lives in the neighborhood, said he has relatives that recently moved out of the duplex’s upper levels because they claimed to be having problems with electrical outlets. He saw the story of Friday’s fire on the news, and came to see if it was the same house.
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“It’s sad,” said Buckner, “and on Valentine’s Day, too.”
A spokesperson with Minneapolis Public Schools said that children who died in the fire were students in their system. The district confirmed two of them attended Bethune Community School — one first-grader and one second-grader.
Gov. Mark Dayton also issued a statement responding to the tragedy: “I offer my deepest condolences to the families and friends of the victims. I also want to thank the Minneapolis firefighters and other first responders, whose heroism saved lives this morning.”
More than 40 firefighters responded to the scene, where cold conditions made battling the blaze difficult. One firefighter suffered injuries, and was briefly hospitalized.
“Our fire crews did a remarkable job to get inside as quick as they could to rescue as many victims as they could in an extremely tough situation,” Fruetel said.
The fire chief said investigators were still trying to determine what caused the fire. It appears to have started on the second floor, in the center of the building. He said a space heater was found on that floor, but he didn’t know if it was in use before the fire began.
The owner of the property, Paul Bertelson, said Lewis and his family were good tenants, adding that the upper unit included two bedrooms on the second floor, and three on the third floor.
Bertelson’s company identifies distressed or foreclosed properties, refurbishes them and rents to them low-income families. He said the 102-year-old duplex had smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
This is the second major fire in the city in as many months. On New Year’s Day, an apparent explosion and fire destroyed an apartment building near downtown Minneapolis on Cedar Avenue. Three people died.
Minneapolis has suffered at least eight fire deaths already in 2014.
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