The largest fire in recent Winona history destroyed three buildings and damaged several others in the city's historic downtown district on Friday.
Fire officials say the fire lasted the longest inside the Islamic Center of Winona, and throughout the day, the center's members, residents, students, and nearby business owners flocked to Winona's picturesque downtown to see the damage.
Officials have not determined the cause of the fire, and say there are no immediate signs of arson.
Luai Elfaki went to bed a little after 1 a.m. Friday morning. He remembers sending his family a message on Facebook when a friend knocked on his door telling him there was smoke in the building and the two ran outside.
"My friend he went without shoes, without anything," the 37-year-old Sudanese refugee said as he stood on the corner of Third and Center streets looking at the building he used to call home. "We didn't [take] our IDs, we didn't take anything."
Elfaki lived in the apartment above the city's Islamic Center for a year while he studies political science at Winona State University. By mid-morning, the building was a pile of rubble after fire crews demolished the structure in order to completely put out the fire.
"I feel very sad. But at the same time, I feel very happy because I'm alive. I'm supposed to be dying. But I get help from Red Cross and from University, too. They give me a room to live for a couple days until I fix my situation," he said.
Elfaki is one of more than a dozen displaced residents receiving help from the Red Cross. Some are staying at local hotels; others at the university's dorms. No one was injured or killed by the blaze.
The fire burned for several hours at the Islamic Center and the roof collapsed before fire crews arrived, according to Winona Fire Chief Curt Bittle.
"At one point, I really thought we were going to lose the entire block. So, to not have anybody get injured, that's the key," said.
Looking back on his 21 years as a Winona firefighter, Bittle said the blaze was the largest in the city's history.
"I believe this is the first time we've actually had four aerial devices running in the city of Winona. So, it was quite a large fire," he said.
Leaders at the Islamic Center say they have no reason to suspect the fire was anything but an accident. The center has more than 70 members and has been a part of the Winona community for two decades.
The fire also damaged a law firm, a coffee shop and a women's boutique clothing and accessory store.
Sherry Russeau has owned the boutique shop for seven years.
"It's just kind of heart-wrenching," she said. "My daughter-in-law has Blooming Grounds and we're just waiting to find out what happens if we can get back in there. We had a lot of smoke damage, it was engulfed in smoke."
"Yeah," she sighed. "Crazy.
In the afternoon, about 15 members of the Islamic Center gathered inside a nearby Lutheran Church that had opened its doors to them for their Friday prayer service.
Retired Winona State University professor Ahmed El-Afandi helped found the Islamic Center and told members to keep their faith despite the tragedy.
"You know, all of those material things that accumulate, your car, your TV, your video games, your cell phone, your furniture, everything. What happens to it? Your big bank account, what happens to it? All of these things, you leave them behind," he said. "Nobody goes to the grave with a Brinks truck behind them."
El-Afandi said the building was insured but the Islamic Center will likely have to raise funds to help with reconstruction. City and fire officials do not yet have an estimate of total damages.
The State Fire Marshall's office along with local officials will continue to investigate the fire.