No one injured
photo by Ed Krage
by SARAH SQUIRES
with CHRIS ROGERS and JEN BURRIS
Downtown was eerily quiet just before 2 a.m. Friday. When Jim Murphy, co-owner and tenant of 122 Center Street, woke to the roar of fire engines surrounding his second floor apartment, he knew something was wrong. As smoke began to fill the building, he and Winona emergency crews ran from apartment to apartment, clearing the 12-unit building, alarms clamoring through the choking haze.
Fire officials believe the flames had raged for hours before the emergency call came in at 1:49 a.m. from a renter who spotted smoke. Because of the size and power of the blaze, Winona Fire Chief Curt Bittle said he believed it was the first time workers had to employ four aerial devices fitted with powerful ladder hoses in an effort to combat the worst fire in recent Winona history. The massive inferno took hours to control as it skipped from historic building to historic building through shared attic space, destroying the Winona Islamic Center, Sole Sport and the Brosnahan Law Office, and damaging adjacent buildings at Third and Center streets.
"At one point I really thought we were going to lose the entire block," Bittle explained Friday morning, as the Winona Fire Department, joined by the Goodview, Wilson, and St. Charles departments, continued to fight back the fire. No one was injured, he told a crowd gathered near the scene, while crews demolished the Winona Islamic Center bit by charred bit.
Authorities believe the blaze started in the Islamic Center. Winona police officers were evacuating the apartments above the Brosnahan Law offices, when they heard a great crash — the Islamic Center's roof had collapsed, Bittle explained.
When firefighters arrived, the blaze was roaring. Winona fire crews rushed to save the block from disaster. "We dug our heels in at 62 East Third Street and opened up the walls to prevent the fire from taking out the entire block," Bittle said.
Murphy said fire crews cut through the first layer of wall separating his building from the rear portion of the Islamic center, then soaked the area with fire hoses to help keep the blaze from his building. Material from the Islamic Center and Brosnahan Law Office were removed throughout the morning as crews worked amid clouds of smoke and smoldering debris. Firefighters succeeded in controlling the spread and, finally, in extinguishing the fire late Friday morning. "It was a long day," said one firefighter.
How the fire started remains unknown. The Minnesota State Fire Marshal was on the scene Friday morning, but, Assistant Chief Jim Multhaup said the investigation would not begin until next week, after the rubble is cleared.
"It's such a devastating event; nobody knows what we are going to do," said Beverly El-Afandi, the wife of the Islamic Center's founder and long-time imam, Dr. Ahmed El-Afandi.
"It is pretty sad," said the center's current imam, Dr. Hamid Quraishi.
Beverly El-Afandi was flooded with calls from Muslim groups in Minneapolis, former center attendees now in India, and others offering their sympathy, prayers, and aid.
"Friday prayers are the most important prayers," so the timing was particularly saddening, explained El-Afandi. However, she continued, the center has accepted an offer from the Wesley United Methodist Church to use its space for worship.
When asked if he had any reason to think the fire may have been started by someone, Quraishi said, "I don't know at this point; I will trust the government officials to run an investigation. I don't see any reason why there would be a fire in the Islamic Center; there is nothing there. But we will wait to see [the results of] the investigation."
Mayor Mark Peterson was on the scene Friday morning and announced that the historic district of Winona will persevere. “We will do what we can to help,” he noted. Peterson stated that although this is a heartbreaking situation, it is lucky the residents of the area and the brave people fighting the fire did not suffer any injuries or fatalities. “This could have been so much worse,” he added.
Murphy said on Friday morning that it was too soon to tell exactly how much damage his building had suffered from smoke and water, but that it was clearly minor when compared to the neighboring buildings that were utterly destroyed. He said the historic buildings forever lost are important to everyone in the Winona community, and "this is a pretty big loss."
Huddled and wrapped in blankets, watching crews continue to work as the sun rose, Murphy and his tenants expressed gratitude for emergency workers and for what they had not lost: their lives. "You take a breath, take some time," said Murphy. "We'll weather this."
The Winona Red Cross, along with friends and family members, helped to ensure that those displaced by the fire had a place to stay, clean clothes, and what they would need to get through the next few days. Those who would like to make a donation to the Winona Red Cross and its relief efforts for victims of the blaze may call 507-452-4258 for more information.
"The job the police and fire departments did was amazing," Murphy noted. "When you look out the window and see they're already there — that's safe."