'Queen of disasters’ keeps her head up

Tiffany Churchill escaped a deadly fire and a car accident. Now she plans to stay in her tornado-damaged Minneapolis home.

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Tiffany Churchill with son Isaiah, 7 months, next to the remains of the tree that hit her apartment

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Tiffany Churchill had already survived Minneapolis' deadliest fire in 24 years and earlier this year had walked away from an accident that totaled her car, when a tornado struck her North Side home on May 22.

"I told my mom that I was the queen of natural disasters," said Churchill, 23, who seems unfazed by her streak of bad luck.

Churchill was driving home from work at a Maple Grove hotel when she heard sirens wailing last month. The twister blew out the windows on her porch, blasted the chimney and dropped a tree on the roof. No one in her apartment was home, so once again her family was physically unscathed.

Churchill's mother, Lorrie Prescott of Buffalo, Minn., takes some credit for her daughter's even keel, despite the misfortunes that have jostled the young woman's life. "Sometimes you have to wipe away the past and... move on," Prescott said. That's what Churchill has done, over and over again. In February 2010, Churchill moved into a shabby apartment upstairs from McMahon's Irish Pub, at E. Lake Street and 30th Av. S. in Minneapolis.

She was a single mom with twin toddler daughters, working as a housekeeper in a hotel. She looked forward to living in her own place, even if it had a broken smoke detector and a persistent smell of natural gas.

Then, on April 2 of last year, she awoke in the middle of the night and saw a strange orange glow. A fire had erupted in the apartment next to her. Churchill had time to get out with her children.

The blaze killed six people, including three children. The authorities said the fire was probably an accident, but they could not determine how it started. Still, the fire spurred the city to overhaul its inspection practices, after revelations that the aging apartments hadn't been inspected for fire hazards in at least 16 years.

Churchill didn't have renters insurance, and a lawyer told her she'd have a hard time winning any compensation in court. So she depended on the generosity of her family, friends and a few strangers for clothing, furniture and other necessities.

Two months after the fire, she moved into the ground floor of a triplex on Irving Avenue N. near Folwell Park. She made sure the smoke detectors worked, and settled into her new place. She gave birth to a son, who's now almost 7 months old.

Undeterred

In March, her children were in the car when her vehicle was sideswiped. No one was hurt, but the Chevy Lumina was wrecked. About a month ago, the insurance money paid for another Chevy sedan.

Churchill was driving that vehicle to pick up her children from a Brooklyn Center day care center when the storm hit last month. She decided to wait it out at a friend's house.

She wasn't sure what would greet her at home. She could see the trees and power lines down everywhere.

"I ran up to my house and said, 'Please let my house be there,'" Churchill said.

The porch was littered with broken glass, and another window in her apartment was shattered. A crack appeared along the front wall, and the front door frame was warped so the door didn't close right. For three days, she lived there without electricity, using candles and flashlights, sitting on the porch with the baby.

Despite widespread damage in her new neighborhood, where virtually every tree was toppled on some blocks and homes were crushed or ripped open, Churchill said the North Side still feels like home.

"I think I'm going to stay here," she said. "I like it over here."

 

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