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Five deaths in Minneapolis blaze apparently all children

A Minneapolis Fire Department investigator (left) walks out of an upstairs unit while Paul Cox walks out of the downstairs unit with a basket of clothes at the scene of an early-morning fatal fire Friday, Feb. 14, 2014 in a duplex at 28th and Colfax Avenue North in Minneapolis. (Jean Fieri/St. Paul Pioneer Press)


MINNEAPOLIS — Paul Cox woke up around 4:45 a.m. Friday when he and his family smelled smoke. They ran outside and saw their upstairs neighbor leaning out a back window of their burning North Minneapolis duplex, screaming. Cox asked the man what was on fire.

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“The heater,” the man said.

Cox eventually saw three people escape the upstairs unit, which included the second and third floors of the house. The man lived there with seven children, ages from a year to preteen, said Cox, who lives downstairs with six others.

The early-morning fire left five people dead — apparently all children — and several others injured, including a firefighter. All the fatalities were in the upstairs unit, Cox said, noting that the man survived.

Cox identified him as Troy Lewis Jr., 60, though his identity was not officially released.

Lewis’ friends and landlord said he was in serious condition Friday night at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. Information about the others who remained hospitalized, including their number and conditions, was not immediately available.

Cox said he wasn’t aware of other adults upstairs, noting that a woman living with Lewis had moved out Thursday. Another neighbor, Brandi Craig, told The Associated Press that Lewis’ wife died in November after an illness.

Fire Chief John Fruetel said three children died at the scene. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office later confirmed the two additional deaths but did not release any information about the victims. KSTP-TV, citing a source, said all five victims were children. KARE-TV, citing Lewis’ friends, also said all the victims were children, three girls and two boys. Two sisters survived, the friends said.

Fruetel said the fire, whose cause is unknown, started in the living-room area in the middle of the second floor. He said a space heater was found on that floor, but he didn’t know if it was in use before the fire began.

More than 40 firefighters converged at 2818 Colfax Ave. N. in the Hawthorne neighborhood once the blaze was reported shortly after 5 a.m. Friday, said Assistant Fire Chief Cherie Penn.

Heavy smoke and flames were pouring from the second floor of the three-story duplex when fire crews arrived. The fire grew quickly, weakening the structure and challenging firefighters coping with frigid temperatures.

“Our firefighters worked in very precarious conditions,” Fruetel said. It took about 2½ hours to extinguish the blaze.

Fruetel told reporters Friday afternoon that an inside stairway between the first and second floors was destroyed. Firefighters reached victims via a rear stairway and a ladder they propped against the house.

Fruetel said the building was up to code and smoke detectors were hard-wired and appeared to be working. He said he didn’t know if the smoke detectors went off before this fire.

The duplex was inspected by the city last summer and issued a new rental license a week ago.

While the inspection report showed minor violations — including a call to repair smoke detectors — all were fixed, a Minneapolis city spokesman said.

The property owner, Paul Bertelson, told the AP that the occupants of the upper unit had lived there six to eight months.

“There were no disturbances. They were good tenants,” he said.

Bertelson’s company identifies distressed or foreclosed properties, refurbishes them and rents to low-income families. He said the 102-year-old duplex had smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. The upper unit is heated by permanent baseboard units.

Fifteen people lived at the address, authorities said. In addition to the eight who lived upstairs, Cox said he and his girlfriend, Latonya Garrett, live downstairs with the five children they have between them.

The injured firefighter suffered a muscle strain and was taken to Hennepin County Medical Center, Fruetel said.

Others injured in the fire were taken to North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale and HCMC.

Gov. Mark Dayton issued a statement offering condolences to the family and friends of the victims, and thanking firefighters and other first responders “whose heroism saved lives this morning.”

Minneapolis Public Schools confirmed two of the children killed were students at Bethune Community School, in the first and second grades.

The Red Cross was offering aid to those affected by the fire.

A vigil is planned at 1 p.m. today at the duplex.

Emily Gurnon contributed to this report.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.