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UPDATE: Residents return after holiday fire

(Kirsten Stromsodt, Grand Forks Herald)

Some of the 40 people displaced Friday morning by an apartment fire in south Grand Forks returned on Christmas Eve to salvage what they could.

Fire Department Capt. Jeff Laskowske said the department was in the process of purchasing plywood to secure the 12-unit building, located at 2627 17th St. S. The blaze started in Unit 11 at the top southwest corner of the third and top floor. There was extensive smoke and water damage throughout the building.

Three people per unit were allowed in at a time, with the Fire Department supervising.

Jacob Pope, 21, came back to gather what he could from his apartment kitty corner to Unit 11. He said thousands of dollars worth of his belongings were lost, and he's lucky he has renters insurance. He said trash was scattered everywhere inside the hallway, and part of the ceiling had caved in.

Pope was asleep when the fire broke out. A visitor inside his apartment woke him after they heard a commotion outside. Pope works a night shift at LM Wind Power.

"I thought, 'Well, it can't be that bad,' but then I looked out the door and saw the smoke. Then, I thought I better get up."

After he evacuated, Pope ran back inside to grab his grandfather's coat from World War II, affixed with a Purple Heart.

"I just couldn't live without that."

Firefighters had arrived by then, and water was coming through the ceiling. About 18 inches had pooled on the floor, Pope said.

Once outside again, Pope was not allowed back in to get his pet, Mutumbo, a two- or three-foot bull python snake. Grand Forks firefighters went back in for him. "'Oh, great,' they said, but they got him," Pope said.

Pope is staying with his girlfriend's family in Buxton, N.D., for the Christmas weekend, and has a room at a Grand Forks hotel next week, thanks to the American Red Cross. He said he's taking things in stride.

"(It's) part of life, I guess."

Firefighters responded to the blaze about 9:15 a.m. Friday and spent about 20 minutes evacuating tenants, some stuck on a balcony, before dousing the flames. It took two hours to get the fire under control.

It will be awhile before much of the building is livable, Mike Sandry, a battalion chief with the Fire Department, said Friday.

Five tenants, who were uninjured, were evacuated. Three firefighters suffered light injuries, such as pulled muscles.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.