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Cause still unknown in fire of Pisek, N.D., landmark

Francis Jelinek, a Pisek, ND, firefighter and former fire department chief, was the first firefighter on the scene of Monday's fire at the former Terra Cotta Ballroom. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
A school bell stored in the former Terra Cotta Ballroom in Pisek, ND, remains among piles of ashes and metal items following Monday's blaze in Pisek. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

PISEK, N.D. - Skeletons of furniture and machinery protruding from ashes are all that remain of the Terra Cotta Ballroom building in Pisek, N.D.

Fire destroyed the historic structure Monday with crews on scene fighting flames from early morning until evening.

The cause has not been revealed by fire officials. Regional Fire Marshal Bruce Langerud said the investigation is still active and a report won’t be issued for a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, people drove by the scorched structure slowly, taking in the sight of a former community hub where students played basketball, couples shared their first wedding dances and churches held fundraisers, now reduced to smoldering rubble.

The building hadn’t been used as a gathering place for about a decade and had since been converted into storage and an apartment.

It was supposed to serve a future home for the father of its owner, Jerry Slinger.

“He already had his stuff stored in there,” Slinger said. “Now he has nothing, not even pictures of his childhood.”

Total loss

The loss also extends to Slinger’s current home, a converted school house in Pisek, a town of 106 people.

A number of building materials and equipment he and his wife were using to renovate the school had been stored in the Terra Cotta building.

Considered a total loss, Slinger estimates the building was worth $400,000 while the possessions and materials inside came to about $250,000.

Built in the 1950s, the building was undergoing renovation at the time of the fire.

Volunteer firefighter and contractor Josh Jelinek watched as the new shingles and other fixtures he had installed went up in flames.

“It’s hard to see that hard work go down the drain,” he said.

Like other residents, the building had been part of his childhood.

“I never got to play basketball there, but we did have phy. ed. classes in there,” Jelinek said.

While fire officials have not officially said whether the fire was a result of negligence or was set intentionally, Slinger remains suspicious of the incident.

Community effort

Fire and emergency crews from two communities turned out to try to save the building.

Firefighters from Pisek and nearby Park River, N.D., were called to the scene to fight the fire and extinguish any flare-ups.

Pisek firefighter Francis Jelinek was one of the first people to pull up to the Terra Cotta.

Jelinek, a former fire chief, said the fire first started on the building’s north end in its kitchen. With a sweep of his hand to the south, he retraced the course the fire — helped along by wind — took through the building.

During the nearly 12 hours it took to extinguish the flames, firefighters were aided by several community groups.

Crews from Park River and Walsh County paramedics remained on standby while farmers brought additional water to the scene. Though closed for Memorial Day, the town’s grocery store opened up and residents brought food and water to emergency personnel.

 Francis Jelinek said he and others were thankful for the help even though the building couldn’t be saved.

“It’s a loss to the whole town,” he said. “You can never replace a building like that.”