Herald Journal - Enterprise Dispatch - Delano Herald Journal
Fire destroys Loretto apartment complex Tuesday
December 21, 2009

Ten people left displaced

By Ryan Gueningsman and Matt Kane
Delano Herald Journal

LORETTO, MN – A fire that consumed an eight-unit apartment building in downtown Loretto began shortly before noon Tuesday and burned well into the evening hours, displacing 10 people from their home days before Christmas.

“I was driving down County Road 19 southbound and there was a huge plume of smoke coming out of the building,” said Roman MacGuire, one of the first people on the scene of the fire. “I pulled over and there was a guy on the corner who was pretty frantic. He had just called the fire department.”

Across the street from the apartment building, at the Loretto Fire Hall, Medina Police Chief Ed Belland and Loretto Fire Chief Jeff Leuer were having a meeting when Leuer’s pager sounded.

“He (Leuer) responded to the fire, and I came down and blocked traffic on 19,” Belland recalled. “The smoke was rolling out of the building at the time.”

By the time MacGuire parked his truck, the blaze, which started on the second floor of the two-story building, had worked its way through the wall. Knowing the fire department was en route, MacGuire said he did not go into the burning building to see if anyone was inside.

“I wasn’t feeling that brave,” MacGuire admitted.

Two residents of the apartment building were inside at the time the fire broke out, and both made it out safely.

“The last lady finally got out after I had been here 10 minutes,” MacGuire said. “The upper floor was pretty well enflamed when she got out of the building finally.”

Belland said there was one woman in a basement apartment, and emergency personnel were pounding on the door before she finally came out.

“She was the last person,” Belland said. “The building was burning at the south end, and she came out of the southwest corner of the building, from the basement apartment.”

It did not take long for the first responders to arrive at the scene of the burning building, since it was located literally across the street from the fire department.

Leuer, a first-year fire chief and 17-year veteran of the department, said his first concern was the citizens who lived in the building. Of the building’s eight units, seven had tenants.

“Making sure we get all the citizens out of the apartment complex,” Leuer said was the first priority. “Worry about their safety and security. The next thing is basically the property – trying to save as much property as we can.”

When he arrived at the scene, there was smoke and flames already pouring out of the building, he added.

“I was concerned quite a bit about the residents inside,” Leuer said.

After ensuring occupants were out of the building, Leuer said the department did a “size-up” of the fire, looking at it from all sides.

“In this case, I knew that we had a large fire, so I called in approximately seven departments to start with immediately, and you just try to get as many resources that you possibly can to the scene due to the fact the weather was also a huge part of this fire,” Leuer said.

The temperature was 0 degrees, and there was a windchill, which made firefighting even more of a challenge.

“That played a factor into the fire, somewhat, with the wind out of the northwest,” Leuer said. “There was enough wind to cause some issues with that part of the firefighting.”

The biggest issues for firefighters were making sure equipment didn’t freeze, and the safety of the firefighters themselves.

“You have to make sure that they keep warm and hydrated,” Leuer explained. “We basically switched them out as often as we possibly could.”

Every 20 minutes, a new crew would take over fighting the blaze, and the crew that had just been working the fire would go back to the city hall for warmth and nourishment.

To bring in more manpower, 19 west metro fire departments were called in for mutual aid to Loretto. Departments came from Hennepin, Wright, and Carver counties, and included Wayzata, Maple Grove, Hamel, Rogers, Long Lake, Rockford, Hanover, Delano, Plymouth, Maple Plain, Excelsior, West Metro, Minnetonka, Watertown, St. Bonifacius, Eden Prairie, Mound, Victoria, and Osseo.

Assisting the Medina Police Department were West Hennepin Public Safety, Corcoran police, Three Rivers Park District police, Orono police, and the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office and highway department.

Leuer said communicating with this many departments at one time was not a challenge.

“We work on the incident command structure,” Leuer said. “Once you get your incident command set up, and you have an incident commander and staging – it went pretty smooth after we got that set up. That took a little bit to get that set up, but after approximately 20 minutes, we had that set up and it was working well. There weren’t any communication problems at all.”

Leuer said, despite the devastating circumstances, fighting the fire and the emergency response went well. The fire departments cleared the scene around 8 p.m. the night of the fire.

“The departments working together did a heck of a job,” Leuer said, adding he “just wants to thank all the departments for all their help.”

MacGuire, a chimney technician from the Plymouth area, was heading to a service call just down the street. While observing the firefighters in action, he said he observed some truly brave things.

“A couple firefighters went up to the second story and were fighting the blaze from the inside out,” MacGuire said. “It’s one of the coolest things I’ve seen outside of a movie. They were breaking through the wall with their arms to get to the outside, so they could fight the fire through the wall. It’s pretty intense when you see a firefighter’s arm break through a wall.”

Fire started inside building with heat gun

After investigation by the Hennepin County team and local officials, the fire was determined to be caused by a building maintenance worker trying to thaw out pipes with an electric heat gun.

“That heat gun started the structure on fire,” Leuer said. “So, we do know that was the cause. It was obviously unintentional.”

Katie McGroarty lived in the apartment where the fire started, and lost everything in the blaze. While the fire was still being fought, McGroarty was at the Choo Choo Bar and Restaurant, several buildings away, holding her cat, Jennifur, who had been rescued from the building earlier.

Obviously shaken and still worried about another young cat believed to have been in the building, McGroarty said she moved into the building Oct. 22. She noted her lease actually began Oct. 1, but she delayed moving into her new home because building management had been fixing some things.

“My heat wasn’t working, and my maintenance guy was working on it when it (the fire) started, apparently,” McGroarty said. “I was at work and my neighbor downstairs called, the neighbor with the other cats. She told me the roof was on fire, and that I needed to get home. So, I came home, and it’s gone. Everything is gone. I’m screwed. I have no money. I spent all my money fixing up that place.”

For the time being, McGroarty said she was planning on staying with her mother, and she expressed appreciation to the firefighters and emergency personnel who responded to the scene of the fire. The second cat, Maggie, was found about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday night.

“Thank you so much,” McGroarty. “I appreciate it a lot. And she does, too,” she added, casting a loving glance at Jennifur.

The day after the fire, tenants were able to enter the building and collect any possessions that were salvageable. The Red Cross and Salvation Army were on scene helping those displaced find temporary accommodations. Choo Choo Bar and Restaurant, Axel’s Tavern, and Detour 19 all provided food to those working, as did several local residents. Lighting was provided at the scene by Doboszenski and Sons.

History of the building

Somewhat of a Loretto landmark, the apartment building had served a number of purposes over the years.

In the “History of Ss. Peter and Paul Church, Loretto, Minnesota” published in 2003, the building located at the corner of Railway Street and Hennepin County Road 19 (Medina Street) is pictured as DeWerd General Store, Saloon, and Machinery.

The building later became the Van Beusekom General/Grocery Store, according to the history book.

At present time, the building was operated by KG Property Management as an eight-unit apartment complex.

At a press conference the afternoon of the fire, Assistant Fire Chief Tim Ryan guessed the building would be a total loss and have to be torn down.

Fund set up for fire victims at 21st Century Bank

The 21st Century Bank in Loretto has established a fund for fire victims. Contact the bank at (763) 479-2178 for more details or visit/mail at 699 Medina Street, Loretto, MN 55357


 

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