Days after telling his surviving children that their five siblings died in a house fire, Troy Lewis put the blame squarely on his landlord for not providing sufficient heat.
“I wouldn’t be standing here in front of you. I would be home with my babies,” he said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon, adding that he bought a space heater and left the oven on to warm the north Minneapolis apartment.
Investigators have not determined the cause of the early morning fire but said it appears to have started where the space heater was running between the living room and dining room.
The blaze in the upper floors of the duplex was so heavy that it burned a 6-foot circle through the third floor, where several children were sleeping, and destroyed most of the stairs leading there.
Lewis said he repeatedly told his landlord, Mission Inn, about the lack of heat. Mission Inn owner Paul Bertelson responded that his company did not get calls about heat, nor did Lewis bring it up in a face-to-face meeting the Tuesday before the blaze.
“We received no calls for maintenance repairs,” he said late Wednesday afternoon.
Lewis contradicted Bertelson, saying he constantly called Bertelson and the manager of the duplex.
Lewis said he sometimes turned the oven on to heat the apartment. During the news conference, he said that the oven had been on for a couple of hours when the fire started. Following the news conference, he said he turned the oven off at 9 p.m.
According to the fire incident report, Lewis told investigators he had left the space heater running for several days before the fire. Asked about that at the news conference, he said the space heater had been off during the day before the fire.
Lewis said he did not blame the space heater, saying it was brand-new. “If it had tipped over, it would have cut off because I checked it myself. I did check it.”
Lewis said he informed daughters Shaca, 9, and Electra, 5, two days ago that their siblings perished in the blaze.
“My daughter Shaca took it the hardest,” he said. “My daughter Electra was just in a daze — she’s still in a daze about it. She don’t talk about it.”
Shaca is now in serious condition, while Electra is satisfactory. A fund arranged by the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers is aiding the family. See the methods to donate at tinyurl.com/LewisFund.
The funeral for Gwendolyn, 18 months; Troy, 3; Fannie, 4; Mary, 6, and Christopher, 8, will be at noon Saturday at Shiloh Temple Church. It was initially scheduled for 11 a.m.
A list of complaints against Mission Inn and Bertelson’s approximately 26 properties, shows only one heat complaint over three years — at 807 31st Av. N. in 2013. Many of the other issues related to rubbish left around apartment buildings.
Both complaints for 2818 Colfax Av. N., the duplex where Lewis lived, were filed before the family moved in last fall. One was related to drywall, a broken kitchen window and a rotting balcony.
The other, from August 2013, said: “Electricity Has Been Turned Off. There Are 3 Meters At The Building But Everything Runs Off Of The Tenants Meter And There Are Additional Electrical Problems.” Bertelson said that a previous tenant did not pay their bills, prompting the energy company to stop service and subsequently something — possibly a storm — pulled the power mast away from the building.
He said he wasn’t sure what “additional electrical problems” referred to, except possibly the power mast problem. The city declared the building unfit for habitation until the electricity issue was resolved on Sept. 24. The Lewis family moved into the unit in October, occupying the second floor and rooms on the third.
Lewis said that Mission Inn told him the heating issue would be resolved and that the family was on the list to get it repaired. Bertelson said he was not aware of any list for heat-related repairs.
Lewis, 60, said that the electric baseboard heaters, which were individually controlled, worked only in his bedroom and the living room.
“Not my son[’s room], not my girls’ room,” Lewis said, later saying that all five girls slept in two bedrooms on the third floor. “They would always come down like little Egyptians with all the clothes wrapped around them.”
He also said the smoke detectors did not activate, adding that they did not go off in the past when he burned food he was cooking.
“There was no warning for me,” he said. “The only warning that I got was smoke into my bedroom and the crying from my kids.” A city inspector found that smoke detectors were not working in the property in July, but city records show that the violation was resolved after another inspection.