One victim was the home's owner, a bedridden 78-year-old woman who loved to hold family gatherings.
Arthur Kennedy stood in the bitter cold Sunday afternoon and stared in disbelief at the charred family home where, just hours earlier, his bedridden aunt had taken her final breath amid flames and her son's cries for help. Minneapolis firefighters had struggled through snow-clogged streets to reach the burning structure as one of the city's worst snowstorms in history was winding down.
The aunt, whom Kennedy identified as 78-year-old Mary Frances Rowe, died along with another person who wasn't yet identified Sunday evening. Four other people, including Rowe's adult son, were hospitalized with injuries. The son was listed in satisfactory condition at Hennepin County Medical Center early Sunday evening.
The first fire truck to respond got stuck in the snow about a quarter-block away from the house in the 3600 block of Elliot Avenue S., officials said. A second engine arrived two minutes later, at 1:38 a.m. Minneapolis Fire Chief Alex Jackson said firefighters did "phenomenal work" in getting to the scene despite the conditions.
When firefighters arrived, Jackson said, they found three adults standing on the porch roof and immediately put up ladders to rescue them and searched the first floor.
Conditions deteriorated quickly because of "a heavy volume of fire -- there was so much fire," he said. Firefighters had to pull out, and the second floor soon collapsed.
Neighbor Jay Reeves said he rushed down the street when he learned of the blaze. He said he saw Rowe's son, Terry Rowe, standing on the roof and hollering for somebody to help his mother as flames roared below.
Reeves said he knows Terry Rowe and tried rushing into the house, but firefighters held him back because it was too dangerous. "I told [Terry] to jump," Reeves said. "He was trying to save his mom."
Twelve hours later, as firefighters continued to comb the ruins, finishing their investigation, Kennedy and others stared at the wooden house they remembered so fondly. Now it stood almost entirely charred inside.
"I'm looking at it," Kennedy said. "I just can't believe it."
Mary Frances Rowe's 2 1/2-story house had been in the family for decades, relatives said. A niece said Rowe had lived there at least 50 years. The structure served as the holiday and summer barbecue gathering spot for a sprawling family that originally hailed from Mississippi, they said.
"When we all migrated here ... this is where we came," Kennedy said.
Relatives said the woman, a retired chef, had been bedridden in deteriorating health for a few years.
"She was the one that, when we needed help, didn't have money or didn't have anywhere to stay, she was always there. She was just a good person," her niece Dorthy Kennedy said. "It's very, very tough to know that she went that way."
Rowe loved visits from family members, especially children, relatives said.
The last few times she had gone into the hospital, relatives said, officials had to be called in to help get her down from her second-story room. Family members had been working on a plan to remodel to make room for her hospital bed on the first floor, they said.
"It was something she always feared: If there was a fire, how would she get out?" Arthur Kennedy said.
Family members said they didn't know the cause of the fire, but believe it started in or near the son's bedroom on the first floor. His mother's bedroom was directly above it and collapsed during the fire, they said.
As Arthur Kennedy spoke to reporters, another relative pulled up in his car, got out, tears streaming down his cheeks and wailed: "How did this happen?"
About 2:15 p.m., relatives embraced as firefighters carried the body of one of the victims out on a stretcher.
"Thank you guys for everything," Arthur Kennedy told the firefighters, some of whom put their arms on his shoulder.
Mary Frances Rowe was the eldest of the family in Minnesota, her nephew said. Her house contained volumes of family photographs and happy memories. Nothing was salvageable, he said.
"We were raised to stay strong no matter what happens," Arthur Kennedy said. "We're all going to be devastated for a while."
Minutes later, as officials packed up and spun their tires through the snowy street, a large excavator pulled up. Its long arm started clawing the house down.
Staff writer Pamela Miller contributed to this report. Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102