Winona fire wrecks historic buildings, Islamic Center

After the fire
Rubble fills the street after an overnight fire damaged buildings that house Brosnahan Law Firm, Sole Sport, Winona Islamic Center and Integrative Health are among those heavily damaged.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

One of the largest fires in Winona history swept through parts of downtown early Friday morning, wrecking historic buildings and businesses and chasing 16 people from their homes.

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The fire burned for hours before crews arrived. It was most active at the Islamic Center of Winona, where the building's roof had collapsed, Winona Fire Chief Curt Bittle told reporters.

Officials don't yet know where the fire started and haven't found any evidence of arson, Winona Police Chief Paul Bostrack said. "We'll be looking into it," he said. "At this point we have nothing that indicates that."

Three buildings were destroyed, including a historic former bank building that had a concrete roof, Bittle said. A few other buildings have smoke and water damage.

The fire began around 2 a.m. Officials worried they would lose the entire block.

But by 11 a.m., it was contained and crews were demolishing the buildings most damaged. The state fire marshal was en route to begin investigating what happened.

"As sad as this is today, it's great that nobody was hurt," said Winona Mayor Mark Peterson. "We're going to do what we can to get this cleaned up. It could have been a lot worse than it was."

Fire crews and demolition equipment
Fire crews and demolition equipment at work at the scene of a large fire that engulfed numerous buildings in downtown Winona, Minn., on Friday morning, Sept. 13, 2013.
Photo for MPR News by Alex Kolyer

Some places could not be saved.

The Islamic Center and the three people renting the apartment on the building's second floor lost everything in the fire, said Mohamed Elhindi,the center's president.

If the fire did start at the center, Elhindi said leaders had no reason to suspect it was anything but an accident.

"We are in a very supportive community," he said. "That's something that isn't even crossing our minds."

Luai Elfaki was among those who lost everything.

He went to bed around 1:15 a.m. Friday. He was sending his family a message on Facebook, when a friend knocked on his door telling him there was smoke in the building.

"It's hard to see, hard to see. That's why we ran out. Even my friend he went without shoes, without anything. We ran out and we didn't (take) our IDs, we didn't take anything because we (thought) there is a fire in our building, our apartment."

The 37-year-old Sudanese refugee stood on the corner of Third and Center streets looking at the building he used to call home.

Elfaki has lived in the apartment above the city's Islamic Center for a year while he studies political science at Winona State University.

"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."

Bittle, Winona's fire chief, said it was one of the largest fires he could recall in the city in his 21 years on the job and it was challenging to fight in buildings that are more than 100 years old.

The Brosnahan Law Firm building was among those heavily damaged. Attorney Paul Brosnahan said the three Winona State sophomores living in an apartment above his law firm are all safe.

The fire also damaged a coffee shop and Sherry Russeau's boutique clothing and accessory store.

"It's just kind of heart-wrenching," she said. "My daughter-in-law has (the damaged coffee shop) and we're just waiting to find out what happens if we can get back in there," she added.

"We had a lot of smoke damage, it was engulfed in smoke," she sighed. "Crazy."

A local Lutheran church provided space to the Islamic Center for today's prayers.

Ahmed El-Afandi, a retired Winona State professor who helped found the center, told those at the prayer service 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."

MPR News reporters Tim Nelson and Curtis Gilbert contributed to this story.

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