The fire is out.
The work begins anew.
The largest fire in Winona’s recent history raged through a downtown block early Friday, destroying at least two buildings, including the Winona Islamic Center and severely damaging several more.
Miraculously, as dozens of people rushed from smoke-filled apartments into cold darkness and countless more firefighters and emergency responders climbed ladders, wrangled hoses, crawled through burning buildings and stepped through smoke denser than morning fog, not a single person was injured.
Some firefighters remained on the scene Friday evening, monitoring what remained of the Islamic Center, checking the temperatures of the ash and debris to ensure the fire they spent a half-day extinguishing would not return. They were expected to remain for some time.
Today, for the businesses lost and damaged, for the residents displaced and for the members of the Winona Islamic Center left without a place to worship, the new work begins.
The rumors couldn’t help but swirl — a mosque burning less than two days after the anniversary of Sept. 11 — but Winona Fire Chief Curt Bittle and Police Chief Paul Bostrack said at a Friday news conference that there is nothing to indicate that any foul play was involved.
For the Islamic Center members, the healing began Friday when Central Lutheran Church offered them a place to worship even as the flames continued to leap above their building.
Gathered at the church that afternoon they spoke of healing, of overcoming the great challenges presented by a loss so immediate of a place they spent more than a decade building. Many said they were overwhelmed by the ways the Winona community reached out to help.
It was “beyond description,” said Ahmed El-Afandi, a founder of the center. He stood silently across the street from the burning center much of Friday morning, but by the time he reached the church, strength had returned to his voice. He urged followers to find ways to move forward, to not dwell on tragedy.
“It’s the only way to survive — to stay positive,” he said.
A stand to save a block
It wasn’t known Friday when the fire began, or where, though Bittle said it most likely began in the Islamic Center.
It also may have burned for hours before discovery.
A man in one of the two apartments above the Brosnahan Law Firm building on Center Street was the first to call 911 at 1:49 a.m. after black smoke began pouring through the apartment windows. Firefighters responded in about three minutes, but the roof of the Islamic Center collapsed just before they arrived. Meanwhile, the three men living in the apartment had fled to the street — but not before they notified the three women who lived in the apartment next door.
Residents’ decision to count heads first and then escape was reflected time and time again throughout the night, as neighboring apartments filled with smoke and firefighters soon evacuated the entire block, sending dozens of residents to the street.
The fire spread quickly to multiple buildings along East Third Street, including those that house Sole Sport, Pipe Dream Toys, and Integrative Health at 62 E. Third St. Before 3 a.m. firefighters were battling blazes in multiple locations. Responding to the fire took the full force of the Winona Fire Department, along with assistance from the Goodview, St. Charles and Wilson fire departments. The Pickwick Fire Department took up temporary residence at Winona’s central fire station to respond to medical calls.
Spent water poured from entrances, windows, and along gutters and rose to the depth of the curb as the departments teamed up and ran multiple lines into the buildings. In the early hours of the fire, a river of water cascaded down the front entryway of the Brosnahan building and into Center Street for more than an hour.
The effort wasn’t enough.
The building, originally the first home of Merchants Bank, caught fire about 5 a.m. and burned for hours, with firefighters unable to create an opening in the concrete roof. The fire was extinguished about 10:30 a.m. but the building was gutted and considered a total loss.
The L-shaped design of the Islamic Center may have saved one of the buildings, the one it embraced: 50 E. Third St., which houses Blooming Grounds coffeehouse and Pretty Things on Third, as well as 12 upstairs apartments.
The building never caught fire, though it still suffered significant smoke damage, as well as damage from firefighters working on the blaze.
The roof and exterior of Sole Sport was severely damaged, as were parts of the building’s exterior and interior. It was unknown Friday whether the building, which does not have historic value, would be saved.
It was also unknown Friday how much fire or smoke damage other buildings in the block suffered, including Pipe Dream Toys, the Winona Garden Chinese restaurant, and a building owned by Home and Community Options that houses several organizations, including Semcac and Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services. All those businesses were closed for the day.
Several of the business owners said Friday it was much too early to predict their futures, whether they would re-open, move, or simply pull their sign down.
As the battle stretched toward morning, firefighters grew concerned that the design of the East Third Street buildings, which are attached to each other and have connected attics and in some cases connected basements, would allow the fire to easily pass on.
The fire appeared destined to capture a full city block. Fire chief Bittle acknowledged as much at the morning news conference.
“At one point I thought we were going to lose the entire block,” he said.
So the firefighters decided to hold their ground at 62 E. Third St.
Now or never.
They dug in their heels, entered the building, opened walls, and fought back.
Shortly before dawn, they stopped the fire’s spread.
Neighbor helping neighbor
Firefighters had the blaze largely under control about 8 a.m., and by late morning construction crews were demolishing the Islamic Center and hauling away the remains to ensure they would not reignite.
By noon most of the firefighters returned to their stations, and by afternoon, more than 12 hours after the fire was first reported, the street sweepers arrived.
“Sad as it is, it was a good thing no one was hurt,” said Winona Mayor and Winona Country Historical Society director Mark Peterson, speaking at the Friday morning news conference.
“It could have been a lot worse than it was,” he said.
Could have, if not for the impossibly methodical coordination of several fire departments and law enforcement agencies that all appeared to have trained for this exact situation countless times.
Could have, if not for the immediate aid provided by the Red Cross and others. Red Cross representatives relocated at least eight students to temporary housing in Winona State University, worked Friday with city residents displaced on other in-town arrangements, and served lunch and refreshments to responders.
Could have, if not for quick-thinking, benevolent neighbors.
Residents and passersby clustered in groups along Center and Second streets beginning at 2 a.m. to watch the fire for the first few hours. Many told stories of quick escape — but not before they checked on their neighbors.
Brock Norwood, who lives above Blooming Grounds with his girlfriend, Kelsey Stoltz, woke up to a fire alarm shortly before 2 a.m. and woke Stoltz. They arose to heavy smoke in the room, looked outside and saw the fire trucks, and fled the apartment. They moved through smoke in the hallway, coughing while they knocked on 11 other doors and began taking a head count to ensure everyone in the 12-apartment complex had left safely.
Three men who lived in one of the two apartments above the Brosnahan building escaped after smelling smoke, but not before they helped the three women living in the adjacent apartment do the same.
Luai Elfaki, one of the men, is a Sudanese refugee studying political science at Winona State University. He left his home country and his wife and daughter to study here. He fled his apartment building shortly before 2 a.m. with his ID, the clothes on his back, and the shoes on his feet. His passport, other papers, schoolwork, and the rest of his possessions were all still inside.
Somehow, he found a way to laugh while sitting restlessly on a metal bench on Center Street across from the building shortly after 3 a.m. He was thankful, he said, that his roommate Jake Lindberg had knocked on his door when he smelled smoke.
“You are Jesus Christ!” he called out to Lindberg, who paced in front of the bench.
Lindberg said he had lived in the apartment about a month. He has lived on his own since he was a teenager, he said, and all of his things were inside the apartment.
“I like some of the things I have,” he said, as he stopped for a moment to stare at a rushing river of sooty water pouring from the building’s front entrance.
“But I like life more.”
Jerome Christenson, Tesla Rodriquez, Andrew Link and Brian Voerding contributed to this story.