Industrial fans blow acrid, smoky air down hallways, and inside storefronts, drying thick brick and plaster walls that are swollen with the water that saved them. Next door, buildings sit empty, dark and charred, while the historic downtown structures that can be salvaged are abuzz with activity: workers tapping into walls to test for moisture, soot-covered volunteers, business owners and their friends and families hoisting equipment and inventory into massive dumpsters planted along Third Street.
Photo by Sarah Squires
The view from the third floor at 122 Center Street reveals the heart of the fire.
For some whose home or business was damaged by the massive September 13 fire in downtown Winona, it's time to rebuild. For those whose property was utterly destroyed, it's time to move on.
The largest Winona fire in recent history was a unique experience for each person involved, but the days following the blaze have been touched by a singular, unifying quality: a swell of support, help, and kindness from across the Winona region. "I'm just amazed at how supportive the community has been, and the university," said Sue Wallace as she peeled off yellow rubber gloves smudged with soot on Thursday afternoon. Standing in her daughter Emma's apartment above Blooming Grounds, she lifted the corner of a blanket folded over a sofa that seemed untouched. The fabric hidden during the blaze glowed, showing how dark the layer of soot really was along every surface. A quick tour of the properties left standing reveals damage at nearly every corner: flames that licked along the floor and reached up walls to get to windows, areas where firefighters had to blow through brick walls to see where the fire was headed, where they should next mount a watery attack. In one unit, a high-powered aerial hose blasted water through a window, throwing everything not nailed down in the kitchen 25 feet across the apartment.
Amazingly enough, no one was injured in the fire that raged for hours in downtown Winona, though the buildings housing Brosnahan Law Office, Sole Sport, and the Winona Islamic Center — where officials believe the fire began — were destroyed.
"In some cases it was pretty horrific," said Jim Murphy, co-owner of 122 Center Street, where he lived, as well as the corner building housing Blooming Grounds and Pretty Things. His days have been filled with insurance adjusters, parents of student renters, and workers, all busy clearing out apartments and trying to assess the damage. "To me, it's just a building," he said, adding that many people lost much more.
Amy Jo Marks, owner of Blooming Grounds and Pretty Things, was also hard at work Thursday, clearing out inventory and equipment from the buildings. For her, the list of what can be saved is much shorter than what can't be. She'll try to save the furniture and some of the metal racks, but most of the contents of her businesses cannot be salvaged. "I just have no idea," she said of the time it will take her to reopen at the site. "I could tell you how long it would take to start from scratch," but the the downtown storefronts she's nurtured for a decade will need new floors, the textured ceilings will have to be scrubbed off, and everything must be washed and repainted.
Torry Moore, owner of Sole Sport next door, said he learned the building was on fire on his way to the storefront at 5 a.m. the morning of the blaze. "I walked around the corner and saw a pumper truck pouring water into our building and flames shooting out," he said. His storefront has been cleared out, and he's preparing to reopen just across the street in the coming weeks. "It's been pretty crazy," he said of the last week. "The neat thing about being in a small town is that everybody offers to help out."
Paul Brosnahan's historic downtown building was also destroyed. He purchased the former bank in 1992, and although he suffered much in the way of damage, he was back in business in the nearby second floor Home Federal building by Thursday. With a complete backup system for his computers, Brosnahan had his digital systems running by 5 p.m. Friday, and credits many businesses and individuals for their generous help during the days after the fire.
"What I really do is damage control for families who are in upheaval," he said of his law practice. This time, he is on the other end of the disaster, but said his years assisting families with accidents and losses has prepared him to weather the storm. "We're blessed; we're lucky," he said. "We're really appreciative that we're part of a community that rallies around one another like this."
The Winona Islamic Center will not be displaced for long, leaders said. "We are determined to rebuild our center," said Imam Hamid Quraishi. The group has begun a fundraising campaign and opened an account at Eastwood Bank to finance a rebuilding effort at the same site. "The insurance money will not be enough; it's a drop in the bucket," Quraishi explained.
The center is open to considering other locations. Rebuilding in the same location does not have symbolic importance, but since the group owns the lot beneath the destroyed building, it currently seems the most practical approach, Quraishi explained.
In a sea of destruction downtown, many continue to count their blessings. For Marks, what she misses most is coming to work and greeting the people she would see every day. "The hardest part was to wake up that Saturday and think 'I don't have to be there,'" she said. "It's just overwhelming."
Chris Rogers contributed to this report.