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Neighbors stunned as Valentines Day house fire claims 5 lives in Minneapolis

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Fire trucks at  the scene
Police tape runs on North 29th Avenue, blocking access to Colfax Avenue North as emergency responders and Minneapolis Fire Department personnel finish their operation at the scene on Friday, Feb. 14, 2014.
Liala Helal / MPR News

An investigation is under way, and five people are now confirmed dead, at least three of them children, after fire swept through the second floor of a duplex in north Minneapolis on Friday. 

Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel said three children died at the scene. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner's Office later said two other people died, but did not release any information about the victims.

Helen Williams, who is helping the family make funeral arrangements, said all five victims were children.

They were siblings -- two boys and three girls, she said.  

Minneapolis Public Schools said Friday that two of the children killed were students -- a first-grader and a second-grader -- at Bethune Community School.

"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, said Minneapolis Public Schools spokesman Stan Alleyne.

Among those injured was Troy Lewis, according to neighbors and his landlord. Lewis was in satisfactory condition Friday night at Hennepin County Medical Center. Two of his daughters, Shaca and Electra Lewis, were in critical condition.

Craig said Lewis' wife died in November after an illness and that he lived in the upper level with seven children, ages 1 to 9.

Craig said that just the night before she and her fiance had stopped by to give the kids some soft drinks.

"We gave them hugs and kisses and told them we'd see them in the morning," she said.

FLAMES WAKE NEIGHBORS

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

A neighbor, Brandi Craig, 29, said she saw the first flames at 2818 Colfax Ave. N. 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.

"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.'"

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.

LANDLORD STUNNED

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

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.

Bertelson, said Lewis and his family moved in about six to eight months ago.

"There were no disturbances. They were good tenants," he said, adding that the upper unit included two bedrooms on the second floor, and three on the third floor.

Bertelson said the 102-year-old duplex had smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. The upper unit is heated by permanent baseboard units.

The Minneapolis Fire Department called for three alarms and sent more than 40 firefighters to the scene on Friday morning. 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report