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Duluth synagogue destroyed in fire; investigation underway

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Three firefighters stand in front of a burned building.
Firefighters in Duluth examine the aftermath of an early Monday morning blaze at the Adas Israel Congregation.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Updated: 4 p.m.

An early Monday morning fire destroyed a 120-year old synagogue in downtown Duluth, and an investigation is underway to determine its cause and origin.

Fire crews responded just before 2:30 a.m. to the fire at the synagogue belonging to the Adas Israel Congregation on the east side of downtown. Five hours later, firefighters were still hosing down the building’s blackened shell.

Authorities have yet to publicly pinpoint a cause, but say they have some idea of where the fire started.

“Buildings typically do not start on fire for no reason,” Mike Tusken, Duluth’s police chief, told reporters Monday afternoon. “We have an idea, but we don't have enough facts right now for us to be absolutely sure what happened.”

Police have spoken to a couple of people of interest in connection with the fire, but Tusken declined to say why they were of interest, other than that they were in the area.

Two investigators have been assigned from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, but that's standard practice when fires break out in places of worship, Tusken added.

The Minnesota Historical Society says the congregation dates back to the late 19th century, and that the building's cornerstone was laid in 1901.

When firefighters arrived on scene “we had a shed on fire on the side of the building, with some fire and smoke showing on the eave line of the roof,” said Clint Reff, the Duluth assistant fire chief.

Eventually, the building collapsed in two places after crews were pulled out. One firefighter was hit by falling debris in the synagogue's balcony. He was hospitalized but later released, Reff said. No other injuries were reported.

Authorities said later that eight of 14 Torah scrolls stored in the synagogue were saved from destruction.

For David Carlson, pastor of the nearby Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, which was badly damaged in a fire more than three years ago, the synagogue scene brought back painful memories — "an early morning fire, seeing the smoke continuing to rise and the flames being put out, streams of water, the smell of the smoke in the air, and grieving people gathered to watch."

Carlson's church was able to be rebuilt. He moved back in earlier this year. But firefighters say the synagogue is a total loss. No one was inside at the time of the fire. 

Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said his group was saddened by the synagogue’s destruction and is monitoring the situation.

“We are in close communication with the leadership of Adas Israel Congregation and law enforcement in the Duluth area,” Hunegs said in a statement. “The investigation into this incident is ongoing.”

MPR News reporter Tim Nelson contributed to this report.