A neighbor who escaped said that as she watched firefighters, her heart sank: “No kids were coming out.”
One of the deadliest fires in Minneapolis history roared through a North Side duplex before sunrise Friday, pushing a man who lived there with his seven children to a second-story window ledge yelling, “My kids are burning!” before he jumped to the ground with just one of them.
Five of the children died, overcome by a blaze so intense that an interior staircase collapsed by the time firefighters arrived about 5 a.m. Troy Lewis, the 60-year-old man who leapt from the window, was in satisfactory condition at Hennepin County Medical Center.
Fire Chief John Fruetel said the cause of the fire at 2818 Colfax Av. N.— which housed 15 people in all — is still under investigation. But he said there were no immediate signs to explain what happened, and that the house had no outstanding code violations.
On a day when the children should have been trading Valentine’s Day cards with classmates, well-wishers tied pink heart balloons to the porch and friends wept after learning the news.
Neighbor Ayan Ibrahim said that as she watched fire trucks swarm and fire billow from the structure, she “was praying it wasn’t the kids, because that house is always full of little kids.”
When she learned of their deaths, she added, “I swear, my heart just broke.”
The family had been trying to get by since last fall, when the children’s mother, Kim Davis, died of heart failure at age 31, leaving her longtime partner, Lewis, to care for them alone. Despite the family’s hardships, a downstairs neighbor recalled that she often heard the sounds of little ones laughing.
“They were up there having a lot of fun,” said Latonya Garrett, who lived in the duplex’s bottom unit.
A close friend of Lewis’, Regis Woodson, said that two girls, ages 7 and 8, survived. Shaca and Electra Lewis were in critical condition Friday evening, according to HCMC. Woodson said two boys and three girls died. Two of the children attended Bethune Community School, one in first grade and the other in second.
The fire comes six weeks after a New Year’s Day blaze that killed three people in a Cedar-Riverside building, and is the deadliest since an April 2, 2010, fire in apartments above McMahon’s Irish Pub on East Lake Street that killed three children, their father, their grandmother and a bartender.
The 102-year-old building on Colfax — a cream-colored duplex with brown trim — is owned by Mission Inn Minnesota Inc., a for-profit company that rehabs single-family and multi-unit properties in north and south Minneapolis that have fallen into disrepair or foreclosure, then signs on low-income families as tenants.
Paul Bertelson, who owns the firm, said the first floor has a furnace, while living areas above are heated with permanent electric baseboard units.
The duplex has smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, properly located near bedrooms and in good working order, Bertelson said. He added that the property passed a city inspection within the past six months, and that the families have been good tenants.
Garrett said Lewis and his family had lived there since about October — with all the children appearing to be under 12.
‘Lord, take care of this family’
Just before 5 a.m. Friday, Garrett was asleep with her husband downstairs when her 14-year-old stepson banged on the bedroom door, calling out, “The man upstairs is screaming, and it smells like something is burning.”
Still in her nightgown, Garrett ran out the back and saw Lewis sitting on the edge of a second-story window in his boxer shorts, yelling, “ ‘My kids are burning! The house is on fire!’ ” she said.