Aftermath of a deadly fire

Minneapolis' new inspection system is still in a shakedown stage; the first reports are expected to show more inspections.

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Police tape keeps unauthorized persons away from the scene of a fatal fire in the building that housed McMahon�s Pub and some apartments at 3001 E. Lake St. in Minneapolis.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Dml -

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A frantic pounding on the door. A wall of flame. Firefighters carrying a woman's body.

The memories of the deadly McMahon's Irish Pub fire in Minneapolis still haunt Richard Otken.

A year ago today, he was asleep in his apartment above the East Lake Street bar when fire broke out. A neighbor woke him, and Otken escaped with only the clothes on his back.

Six others, including three children, died.

It was the deadliest fire in Minneapolis in nearly 24 years. In the days afterward it emerged that the apartments had numerous fire code violations and had not been inspected in at least 16 years. As a result, the city vowed to change the way it handles inspections.

While the city hasn't released data on whether the new inspection system that started Jan. 1 is generating more tickets for violations and citations for not fixing them, some glitches already are emerging in the new system.

Fire captains say they're still uncertain about new inspection protocols, and they want more training and clearer direction.

Asked if inspections have improved, assistant fire marshal Gordon Bates said, "If the systems that are being set up and the tools and policies work the way we believe," the new system will work better. "But it's too soon to tell."

Routine inspections had found multiple violations in the downstairs bar. But an inspections backlog meant that the upstairs apartments where the fire started weren't scheduled to receive an inspection until July -- three months after the fire.

That was despite a move in 2005 to use firefighters to help speed up the city's inspection process.

A 2010 report from current and former Minneapolis fire chiefs found that the city had received numerous complaints about substandard fire inspections, with claims that some canceled inspections were never rescheduled and that violation reports were never written.

As part of its response to McMahon's, the city moved to strip the Fire Department of administrative responsibilities for inspections, though firefighters will still do the work.

Six specialized inspectors were shifted Jan. 1 from the Fire Department to city Regulatory Services. They are responsible for 1,500 complex commercial properties and 200 of the most troublesome rental buildings.

Fire captains are supposed to inspect about 735 apartment buildings annually, plus about 3,000 commercial buildings that also may contain rental units. They can consult with superiors on problem buildings or even refer those properties to the Regulatory Services inspectors, according to Tom Deegan, director of housing inspections.

The new scheme involves a longer, more detailed checklist designed to guide inspectors through properties. Inspectors are given standardized times to recheck whether violations are fixed.

But some fire captains say more is needed. The checklist is detailed, but it should have been reviewed by fire captains, and they should be told whom to call if they have questions on what's considered a violation, said Capt. Joe Mattison.

Despite the four-hour training given to all firefighters last October -- the first since they started inspections -- more training would help, Mattison and Capt. Reid Wilson said.

Wilson said he's seen no pickup in the department's inspection pace, nor has he seen more discipline imposed for substandard inspections. With ever-fewer people staffing fire stations, fire crews are more stretched, Wilson said.

Still, the city last month met its goal of completing a six-year cycle of inspections of larger apartment buildings, according to city spokesman Casper Hill.

He reported Friday that all buildings in Minneapolis with four or more dwelling units -- more than 3,500 buildings in all -- have been inspected at least once in the past six years.

No cause determined

A city investigation of the McMahon's fire never determined its cause. The blackened shell of the building at 3001 E. Lake St. was torn down last fall. The empty lot is for sale.

Realtor Bob Minks of Welsh Co. said the almost-half-acre parcel is zoned for a four-story apartment complex with retail on ground level. Owner Harold Blumenthal would prefer to lease the property to someone who would build the apartment complex, said Minks.

Otken, the former tenant who escaped the fire, now lives in a duplex a few blocks away. He said he sometimes thinks about bartender Ryan Richner, the only victim of the fire he knew.

"He had this smile that would win you over in a heartbeat, and the personality to go along with it," said Otken.

But he doesn't dwell on the awful memory of that morning.

"I don't like to think about it," he said. "I was glad when they tore that damn building down."

mckinney@startribune.com • 612-673-7329 sbrandt@startribune.com • 612-673-4438

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