Five die in Minneapolis house fire

North Mpls. fire
Minneapolis firefighters respond to a fire at a duplex in Minneapolis, on Friday, Feb. 14, 2014.
Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP

Updated: 8:17 p.m.

The Hennepin County Medical Examiner's Office says the death toll has risen to five after a house fire in north Minneapolis on Friday morning.

Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel said three children died at the scene.

Fire crews were called to the neighborhood before dawn on a report of smoke in the area. They found a fire in a duplex at 2818 Colfax Ave. N. where 15 people were living. Fruetel said firefighters attempted to rescue people in the building in what he called very precarious conditions.

Firefighters at work
Firefighters at the scene of a house fire in north Minneapolis on Friday morning, Feb. 14, 2014.
Liala Helal/MPR News

There is no information yet about whether the additional deaths are also children.

Injured people were taken to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. HCMC reported that one person was treated and released, while three remained hospitalized. It said one fire victim, Troy Lewis, is in serious condition. Two children, Shaca and Electra Lewis, are in critical condition.

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North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale said two children were taken there but would not give their current status.

Fire officials didn't release the ages of the children who had died, though Minneapolis Public Schools in the afternoon confirmed that two of the children killed were students -- a first-grader and a second-grader -- at Bethune Community School.

"We lost two students today," said Minneapolis Public Schools spokesman Stan Alleyne. "It's been a very difficult day for Bethune and the family, the staff. And we're supporting each other as we try to get through this and we're doing the best we can."

Alleyne said teachers were told today about the deaths.

Staff and social workers at Bethune school will be on-hand to help kids cope with the loss of their classmates on Tuesday, the district said.

"It is always difficult to understand a loss like this and it is an especially important time to reach out for support," district chief executive Michael Goar said in a statement.

A neighbor, Brandi Craig, 29, said she saw the first flames. She lives across the street from the house and said a father and seven children lived in the upstairs unit.

Craig and her husband awoke to the sound of sirens and saw flames coming from the front living room window and a side window, before the entire unit became engulfed in flames, she said.

Minneapolis firefighters
Firefighters worked the scene where a fire broke out early Friday, Feb. 14, 2014 in Minneapolis.
Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP

"I was yelling, 'Get the kids out, get the kids out!'" Craig said. "I was so worried."

Craig said she and her husband befriended the upstairs family when the family moved in several months ago, and one boy and six girls lived there with the father. She said their ages range from one to nine years old.

According to Craig, before the flames began, the father leaned out of the window for air from the heavy smoke, and yelled down to his neighbor to help him get the kids out. She tried to get into their front door from the outside, but it was locked, Craig said.

"We were just over there last night -- we bought the kids pop," Craig said. "We gave them hugs and kisses and said, 'We'll see you in the morning.'"

The building's landlord Paul Bertelson said he was awakened around 5 a.m. Friday by a call from the downstairs tenant, who told him the duplex was on fire. "It's been an incredible heartache for a family who's had a great loss," Bertelson said. "And it's hard to say the words, quite frankly."

Bertelson's company, Mission Inn Minnesota, buys foreclosed properties in Minneapolis and rents them to low-income tenant. It operates about 20 buildings in the city.

Gov. Mark Dayton also offered condolences to the victims and praised emergency personnel "whose heroism saved lives this morning."

The department called for three alarms and sent more than 40 firefighters to the scene. The fire chief said the Red Cross was helping the remaining people who were driven out of the building. He also said the building was inspected as of last fall and everything was current and up to date, with no outstanding code violations.

The beige house with brown trim was left with several knocked out windows and doors outside the upstairs unit after the fire. Three pink, purple and blue children's bikes sat outside on the downstairs balcony.

Neighbor Jerry Johnson, 44, said he talked to the family who lived upstairs every day, and would watch the children walk to the bus stop in the morning.

"It was crazy," he said of the fire. "It's so messed up. I got kids of my own, I can't imagine what that's like. It's just one of them days where you just have to hug your kids again."

Jay Vang, 50, lives next door to the duplex with his wife and five children,. He left the house for work around 4:20 a.m., and got a call from his wife after the fire began.

"I couldn't believe it," he said. "I'm very, very shocked. I feel very sad for the kids. I don't know what happened, and I wonder why it came to that."

His wife, Dao Yang, 30, said her 2-year-old son heard the sirens of the fire trucks and ran to wake her up. "So, so sad," Yang said.

Fire officials say the cause of the blaze is under investigation.

At an afternoon briefing, Fruetel told reporters the fire appears to have started in the center of the second floor. A space heater was found but Fruetel said he didn't know if it was in use at the time.

Fruetel said it was difficult for firefighters to make sure they found everyone.

"This is very challenging on firefighters, they take this very hard, especially when you have young people or children," Fruetel said. "It is very, very difficult. We certainly work with our firefighters to make sure that they have an opportunity to decompress, so to speak. We have an internal process that we use and we'll definitely be doing that."

It's the second fire in Minneapolis with multiple fatalities this year. A suspected natural gas explosion in the Cedar-Riverside area destroyed an apartment building, killing three people and injuring about a dozen more on New Year's Day.