MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Saturday marks a sad anniversary for the city of St. Louis Park. Forty years ago, a pizza shop went up in flames on Excelsior Boulevard.

Two firefighters, Arnold Johnson and Robert McElmurry, died in the fire, and both left behind a widow and three kids who still live in the area.
In 1971, a restaurant called Pizza House sat on Excelsior Boulevard. The fire started in back of the building, and spread, unknown to the firefighters, into a false ceiling.

St. Louis Park Fire Department chief Luke Stemmer called it the nearly perfect fire.

“It was clear, there was no smoke,” Stemmer said. “They were looking for hot spots and cleaning it up. Then, all of a sudden, in a minute’s time, the smoke was through the floor.”

The smoke and debris trapped Johnson and McElmurry. Crews still on the scene couldn’t get back into the building.

At the time, there were many fires with the same circumstances across the country. Those instances sparked a change in the way the firefighters respond to emergencies.

“As chief, I’m not willing to trade lives for property. One of our values and mottos here is ‘Everyone needs to go home in the morning,'” Stemmer said.

Now there are reserve crews on the scene just in case a firefighter needs help. There are also safety checks every 15 minutes for crews inside burning buildings and homes. Additional resources are brought to the scene right at the beginning of a fire call.

“We’re putting enough firefighters on the fire ground. They may not come from the same department, but we’re getting them there and operating safely,” Stemmer said.

Saturday, a new station will serve as the place to honor the station’s past. A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. at the station on Louisiana Avenue South and Cedar Lake Road.

The families of Johnson and McElmurry will be there, along with members of the fire department. It is open to the public.