Ninety-two residents of a Whittier neighborhood apartment building were lucky to escape unharmed from a fire Oct. 20, but the blaze took a toll on the residents, many of who are low-income families with single mothers and seniors.
The fire was reported around 7 p.m. and was contained mostly to the roof, where crews had been conducting a renovation of the old Whittier School Building at 2609 Blaisdell Ave. The brick school was turned into a 45-unit apartment complex in the 1980s.
A crew of 50 Minneapolis firefighters spent five hours extinguishing the fire. While successful in containing the flames, the building sustained water damage, including damage to the roof, where renovation crews had been removing asbestos from the 123-year-old structure.
Evacuated residents watched fire crews from afar in the chilly October night, some of them without shoes and warm clothes. While many were able to stay the night with friends and family, others weren’t so lucky. Across the street, the Red Cross set up a shelter at Calvary Baptist Church. Twenty-three residents, including some children, slept on cots in the church.
Tamara Nicholson was one of them. She lives with her five children on the second floor of the three-level building. When she found out there was a fire, she quickly got her kids outside before notifying neighbors.
“The fire alarm goes off so much that people ignore it,” she said, noting that kids sometimes pull the alarms as a prank. “So I started knocking on doors, (saying) ‘get these people out of here, the building is really on fire.’”
Nicholson slept on a cot in the church basement with her eldest child, while her other four stayed the night with her sister.
“Most of the people in this building are single mothers with kids, or single elderly people,” she said.
St. Paul-based non-profit CommonBond Communities acquired the property in August and, according to its Web site, was in the midst of a $3.6 million renovation.
CommonBond Vice President of Resource Development Ann Ruff said crews were rehabbing the roof, windows and interior space. She confirmed that the fire started on the roof, but the Fire Department as of Oct. 26 had not determined the cause of the fire.
As of Oct. 26, residents in 34 of the building’s 45 units were allowed back into their homes. Residents of the remaining 11 units — which were not deemed safe by the Fire Marshal — were relocated to other CommonBond properties in Minneapolis and St. Paul, said Deb Lande, CommonBond’s director of community relations. She said the company has helped some of those residents with rent in their new locations.
Lande expect the remaining 11 units to be livable in three or four months.
Calvast Baptist and the Red Cross hosted families for two nights before anyone could move back in. Red Cross has also provided displaced residents with food, clothing and emotional support, said spokeswoman Lynette Nyman.
Clothing came in handy for many residents. They said firefighters escorted them into the building after the fire and gave them about five minutes to grab whatever they needed most.
For Linda Anderson, 60, that was her medication and her cat. But Anderson, a breast cancer survivor, was not able to grab her prosthetics.
“I am fortunate I have some places to go, but nothing is like your own home,” she said the day after the fire. “I can’t get any of my things.”
Anderson has lived in the building for 13 years and she, like many residents, say it’s a great place to live and residents are like a big family. Some of them have lived there for upwards of 20 years.
“We’re like a family. A lot of us have known each other and we do things together,” she said.
Tammy Thames is part of that family, and so are her three children. They have lived in their apartment for five years. Her two oldest — 20 and 19 — live in the apartment while they attend college.
She recalled the scene from outside the building during the fire.
“Chaos,” she said. “Everybody in the building did not know where they were going. Red Cross was nice to let some people stay here. The church was nice for letting people stay there. They offered coffee and tea and gave us socks and shoes, and stuff to cover our feet, because we left the building with nothing.”
But Thames, a 45-year-old single mother, was hopeful for the chance to get back into her apartment.
“Everybody feels right now that maybe it was a bad thing to even get the reconstruction for the building done because we were pretty much OK living in the building,” she said. “But with the cost of what’s coming most people don’t feel like that was a good thing.”
CommonBond has set up a fund to help the victims of the fire. Donations can be sent to Western Bank, c/o Whittier Benefit Fund, 663 University Ave. W., St. Paul, MN 55104.