Downtown Winona blaze tamed; started in Islamic Center

  • Article by: PAUL WALSH and JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: September 13, 2013 - 10:00 PM

Early morning blaze that swept through downtown apparently started in the Islamic center. There was no indication of arson.

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– Fire erupted early Friday in downtown Winona, burning through an Islamic center that has been a religious hub for decades and is where the blaze apparently began.

Though the block’s upper stories contain dozens of apartments, there were no known injuries.

The fire was first reported to authorities about 2 a.m. and was contained by late morning, Fire Chief Curt Bittle said. Three buildings are a total loss, he said, including the Winona Islamic Center, where the fire burned for some time before it was reported. Throughout the day Friday, crews pulled apart and discarded the charred remains as dozens of residents looked on.

Ahmed El-Afandi, who started the religious center 20 years ago, said the fire began there. Investigators “don’t know anything yet” about the fire’s cause, he said. “Nobody [in the community] has given us any trouble.”

The St. Paul office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) dispatched several investigators to assist authorities on the scene, but the agency said its participation should not be interpreted as ­pointing to arson as a cause.

“There is no indication at this time that this was intentionally set,” said ATF spokesman Robert Schmidt, who explained that the agency is being pulled in to “increase the manpower” assigned to investigate the blaze.

As he watched from the scene, El-Afandi characterized the religious center, which includes a mosque, as “pretty much gone.”

By late afternoon, investigators and firefighters were still gathered near the L-shaped building’s two entrances on Center and 3rd Streets.

In the middle of the night, a friend of Luai Elfaki ran to his door, yelling a warning: “Smoke!”

Before fleeing the building, Elfaki knocked as loud as could on his neighbor’s door until he woke. Watching crews in the afternoon pile blackened wood, Elfaki, 36, bemoaned what he left behind, “my passport, ID, Social Security card …”

As he ticked them off, friend Nabih Elteir playfully pushed on his chest. “But you’re fine. You’re fine,” he told Elfaki, smiling. “We still have you.”

“The good thing is all the people are OK,” said Elfaki, a Sudanese refugee studying political science at Winona State University.

He had lived in the apartment for about a year. For now, he’ll sleep in a campus residence hall, as will other displaced students.

Cause for concern

The blaze shut down a central chunk of the southeast Minnesota city’s downtown Friday. Buildings were evacuated. Blocks were closed to traffic to allow firefighters access to hydrants and room for running their hoses, said Deputy Police Chief Tom ­Williams.

Williams concurred with El-Afandi that his department has dealt with “no trouble whatsoever” in connection with the Islamic center.

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the organization would monitor the investigation into the start of the blaze but had no evidence that anything was suspicious. Hooper said there is cause for concern any time a mosque is involved in a blaze or targeted for vandalism or graffiti, particularly so close to the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

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    Sunday August 11, 2013

  • Firefighters got the overnight fire in downtown Winona contained around 9 a.m. This view is from 3rd Street.

  • Firefighters battle a blaze in several downtown buildings early Friday...

  • Fire erupted Friday in downtown Winona, apparently starting in the Islamic Center. Ahmed El-Afandi, right, who started the center, was embraced by Yousef Hassan.

  • Firefighters battled an early-morning blaze in downtown Winona. There were no injuries, but more than a dozen people were displaced.

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