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Fire destroys Duluth apartment building

DULUTH, Minn. – A 20-unit, three-story apartment building was decimated by fire Sunday on the 1700 block of East Second Street. No one appeared to be seriously injured as good Samaritans pulled children and adults from the burning building.

Witnesses who lined the street for hours say one woman and young child were pulled by a man from a first-floor window, flames lapping around them.

Another group including two women and their young children was escorted from an exterior first-floor patio — fire on either side of them — by a 22-year-old man who asked not to be identified.

“They were petrified; I saw them and made sure they were safe,” said the man, who lives in the neighborhood and was walking to his truck when he saw the black smoke that was a constant presence in the Endion neighborhood throughout the afternoon.

Multiple people were taken to the hospital by ambulance for what witnesses said was smoke inhalation, describing one good Samaritan as sitting on the boulevard afterward and coughing profusely before being taken away by ambulance.

The fire was first reported at around 12:45 p.m. Suppression efforts lasted into the evening. Firefighters lined up their spent oxygen tanks on the boulevard across the street, 13 in a row at one point. They assaulted the blaze with water cannons and other suppression efforts. As more firefighters arrived, two civilian men sprinted to their parked pickup truck to move it farther away from a fire hydrant at the corner of East Second Street and North 18th Avenue East.

“It’s stabilizing, but things can change in a hurry,” said Assistant Fire Chief Clint Reff, who was orchestrating Duluth Fire Department efforts at the scene. “We’re trying to keep it on the one half.”

The apartments — at 1705 and 1707 E. Second St. — appear to be one building, but are separated by a concrete wall between them. It was the eastern-most building, at 1707, that was on fire. Flames engulfed the street-side front of the building, claiming all three floors, with flames and smoke pouring out the roof. In the alley on the building’s backside, smoke was so thick it shrouded the building. Firefighters used ladder trucks on either side of the building — one boom extending up five stories high — to target water onto the roof and under the eaves. Vinyl siding was stripped off the building by the water pressure. At first, the sloped front lawn was charred black in front of the building’s entrance, but later it carried rushing water into the street. The building dripped with constant water, but flames could be seen inside the building throughout the firefighters’ efforts.

Firefighters battle Duluth apartment fire. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service

Firefighters battle Duluth apartment fire. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service

The owner of the building, Kent Oliver, was eating Easter dinner at his son’s house when he was first alerted to the fire. He arrived in time to console some tenants. Oliver owns 17 apartment complexes and operates under the name Oliver Management Services. The apartments that burned — called Applewood Knoll — are affordable housing for families and people who are disabled.

“It is a worst nightmare,” Oliver said. “I’m hoping nobody is hurt and everybody got out. The building is just a physical asset. Hopefully, everybody is out.”

Reff confirmed after 2 p.m. that the building was evacuated.

Carl Brodin comforts his girlfriend Cynthia Fox. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service

Carl Brodin comforts his girlfriend Cynthia Fox. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service

Cynthia Fox was in the building when it caught fire. She lives on the second floor and recalled looking to her patio and seeing an orange ball of flames beyond her black drapes. She hollered “fire, fire,” she said, and “called out my ex-husband’s name by accident.” A moment later, her patio door blew out. She said she heard an explosion and later speculated an oxygen tank had erupted in the apartment beneath hers.

“I can’t even see; my glasses were inside,” said the 58-year-old Fox, who sat covered in a blanket on a neighbor’s front porch steps. “I just grabbed my robe and out the door I went.”

Fox lives with her 16-year-old grandson in the apartment. He was in Cumberland, Wis., for the weekend.

“I’m not even going to tell him today,” she said. “He just lost everything.”

Duluth police officers kept the scene safe and even brought Easter baskets to crying young children belonging to Jessica Petersen and another young mother.

A Duluth police officer holds Easter presents at the scene of apartment building fire. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service

A Duluth police officer holds Easter presents at the scene of apartment building fire. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service

“They’re miserable,” Petersen said of her two children. “They just want to go home, but I don’t think we have a home to go back to.”

Hotel arrangements were being cobbled together at the scene for displaced residents. Fire Marshal Marnie Grondahl was investigating the scene and interviewing witnesses; there was witness speculation the fire started in the lawn. Fox said she saw flames outside her patio door before noticing any smoke.

The unnamed good Samaritan said, “When I ran up, everything was already up in flames.”

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