How did the September 13 fire on Third Street in downtown Winona start? The question has drawn a high-profile team of investigators to town from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), and the Minnesota State Fire Marshall. Over the weekend, officials explored the blackened ruins up close and, from a rooftop, pointed out features in the destruction below.
Firefighters were called to the scene at Center and Third streets just before 2 a.m. by a second-floor renter in a neighboring building who reported thick, black smoke coming from the historic buildings. Crews were soon on the scene and found a fire they believe had burned for hours overnight, which eventually destroyed the Winona Islamic Center, Sole Sport, and the Brosnahan Law Office, and damaged adjacent buildings.
Visible fire damage and first responder reports indicate that the fire probably began in the north end of the Islamic Center. The possibility that the fire was a malicious act against that place of worship is what has attracted the attention of federal agents. However, Winona Muslims said they have no reason to suspect such an attack, and investigators noted that there was no sign of forced entry to the center, and no evidence of flammable liquids. So far, there are no signs of arson. Old wiring could be the culprit, but until they examine the scene, investigators cannot rule anything out. "They are just being thorough," said Winona Fire Chief Curt Bittle of the federal agents' involvement.
There will be back-breaking work before authorities can give Winonans definite answers. Most of the evidence is buried in several feet of rubble — the shattered bricks and concrete of the razed Islamic Center. A week from today, that debris will be carried out by hand, piece by piece, and experts will examine what lies beneath.
How did the fire mark the walls? How deeply charred are the remnants of wooden framework? Where was the blaze the hottest? These are the questions Winona Assistant Fire Chief Jim Multhaup and his federal and state partners will be asking once they exhume the scorched scene.
The gist of it is, "we start where there's no damage and work our way in where there's more and more damage until you get to the point where the most damage occurred," Multhaup explained. "That can usually bring you back to where things originated." The assistant chief is a veteran of 34 years and many investigations, but few of this magnitude. "We want to see the burn patterns, we want to see what was going on with that fire prior to the roof collapse," Multhaup said.
"Low burn patterns that look like pooling on the floor — that's a quick indication of accelerants or flammable liquid," he continued.
Samples from the building will also be sent to a lab for chemical analysis, an extra precaution taken in large, high-profile fire investigations. If any suspicious fire-starting materials or accelerants were present, the forensic lab should detect them. "So far we have no indication that accelerants were involved," Multhaup stated. Multhaup and Bittle expressed confidence that the cause of the fire would be identified.
The fact that the Islamic Center was demolished will make work for investigators more difficult, Bittle and Multhaup acknowledged. However, it had to be done, Bittle said. Rubber and insulation on the center's roof kept water away from the fire, he explained. "We would have been there for two days trying to put out that fire" if they had not broken through the walls and roof. Bittle made the decision that the best way to save the corner building and the rest of the block and to protect his firefighters was to demolish the front of the Islamic Center with a backhoe and douse the still-burning fire. He noted that the rear of the building, where investigators are likely to focus, may be buried, but it is still intact.
While the size of the fire and the involvement of federal agencies is unusual in Winona, careful fire investigations are not. The Winona Fire Department (WFD) always sifts through the wreckage of extinguished fires in an attempt to pinpoint the location and cause of the fires. Understanding why fires started is crucial to prevention efforts, Bittle said.
At a briefing to the Winona City Council on Monday, Bittle also noted that since 2009, Winona has been without a fire inspector. Fire inspectors examine buildings to enforce fire safety codes, with the goal of catching potentially dangerous situations before any sparks fly. "As a city we may want to review that in the future," Bittle told the council, referring to hiring a fire inspector. "It's an arbitrary thing to say if it would have made a difference [in this case], but that is one position in the fire department that we are lacking."
The firefighters who battled the blaze and the police officers and city workers who aided them worked tirelessly, Bittle told the council. Mayor Mark Peterson and the council praised the heroism of the men and women who tore down walls, entered smoking buildings, and directed hoses for hours on end to put out the fire.
Churches invite Muslims to worship
The September 13 fire did not stop Salaat-ul-Jumma, or Friday prayers, for the Winona Islamic Center. Various local Christian churches reached out to the Islamic Center to offer their buildings to the group. Even as emergency crews worked on the scene of the fire, Winona Muslims gathered at Central Lutheran Church last Friday. The next two weeks they will meet at First Congregational Church for Friday afternoon prayers. Though the fire destroyed their normal place of worship, it could not disrupt the soaring chants and humble reverence of Winona Muslims.
"I was overwhelmed," Imam Hamid Quraishi said of the churches' offers. "I was so happy they cared so much. In these difficult times they are giving us so much. I want to thank God and all of the churches from the bottom of my heart." He praised the efforts of emergency workers at the scene of the fire, as well.
The interfaith support shows "the beauty of this small community, where people really care for each other," Quraishi added. The Winona Islamic Center is seeking a new location, he noted.