Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.



Duluth fire inspectors hadn't checked laundry since 2004

Officials with the city of Duluth Fire Marshal's Office haven't inspected the Union Block building since 2004, despite a fire code requiring an inspection every three years, records show.

Officials with the city of Duluth Fire Marshal's Office haven't inspected the Union Block building since 2004, despite a fire code requiring an inspection every three years, records show.

A fire destroyed the Union Block's Hillside Laundry business at 103 W. Fourth St. and significantly damaged two apartments above it on Tuesday, causing an estimated $150,000 to $200,000 damage. Cause and origin of the fire hadn't been determined as of late Wednesday afternoon,

Assistant Duluth Fire Chief Jim Ray said.

At least five of the seven residents displaced by the fire said Wednesday they didn't have renter's insurance and don't know where they'll go next.

The last inspection by the Fire Marshal's Office, which is responsible for commercial units, was on March 19, 2004, and the last by the city's building inspector's office, which inspects rental units, was on Nov. 6, 2006.


A more recent inspection of the businesses hadn't taken place because the inspection program was revamped in 2005, said Duluth Interim Fire Marshal Marnie Grondahl. All commercial inspections are now done by fire marshals, while in the past the city had some inspections completed by fire department personnel, she said.

"We wanted to do full inspections for consistency and because (firefighters) really aren't trained to do that," she said.

Since 2005, buildings such as restaurants, churches, schools and hotels have been inspected while smaller businesses, such as the laundry, were set for inspection this and next year. Once they've all been fully inspected, then fire marshals will return every three years.

The laundry was scheduled for an inspection in December, Grondahl said.

The laundry and apartments are part of the Union Block, which comprises 103 through 109 W. Fourth St.

Mike Piper, the building's owner, said Wednesday morning he hadn't made any decisions about the building's future.

"I might be able to tell you a week from now," he said. "I'm trying to deal with the fire department, trying to get the furnace turned back on."

Meanwhile, Barbara Hyttinen, 53, who had lived in one of the apartments for at least 14 years, was trying to cope with the new reality. Hyttinen and her fiancé, James Zdunek, 49, who shared the apartment with her, both were hospitalized overnight Tuesday after escaping the fire through thick smoke.


Hyttinen said she was alone in the apartment Tuesday afternoon when she saw flames and smoke through her window. She hurried to a neighbor's apartment, where Zdunek was visiting.

"I'm the one that ran across the hall and bammed on their door till they answered," she said. "They came out. I said, 'Just get out of there! There's a fire downstairs and smoke.' "

Added Zdunek, "She saved us all, basically, because we didn't see nothing."

Zdunek and Hyttinen were sitting in the lobby of the Best Western Downtown, where the Northland chapter of the American Red Cross had provided vouchers for three nights of emergency housing. They didn't know where they would go next. They don't have family in the area, except for a handicapped daughter of Hyttinen's who lives in a group home.

Hyttinen paid $130 for a 52-inch color TV last week, and the couple figured it was time to get renter's insurance. But they hadn't chosen an insurer.

"The phone book's probably open to the yellow pages for insurance right now as we talk," Zdunek said. "If it's not burned up, it's probably open to that page."

The Red Cross provided a list of people for Hyttinen and Zdunek to call as they search for housing. They don't want to return to the Hillside. Two years ago, a man was fatally shot in the doorway of the Hillside Laundry, and they don't feel safe in the area.

"You get a little bit up there in age and it's like, you know, anything can happen," Zdunek said. "Get locked out, walk down the street and just get plugged. ... East or west, I don't care, just not in the Hillside area."


But Fred Neal, 40, who also was burned out of his apartment along with his fiancé, said he had been happy with his home of nine months and didn't feel the Hillside was unsafe.

Neal, who also lacked renter's insurance, lost "lots of clothes, my stereo, my TV, my X-box -- things that make life a little easier," he said.

But Neal wasn't complaining.

"The Red Cross and the fire department's response was just unbelievable," he said.

Tenants in other apartments in the building not damaged by the fire were able to return to their homes Tuesday night.

Neither of the previous inspection reports in 2004 or 2006 uncovered significant fire code problems. The fire marshal inspection noted the absence of a fire extinguisher, which was corrected.

The building's rental license was renewed after the 2006 inspection, said Ellen Kreidler of the building inspector's office. A renewal was granted again in 2009, although no inspection took place. Kreidler said no building license inspection has been scheduled.

The Duluth News Tribune and the Herald are both Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

What To Read Next
Get Local