'The building just blew up:' 3 young children, father, grandmother, bartender are killed

A predawn fire tore through apartments above a Lake Street tavern in Minneapolis on Friday, killing three young children, their father, their grandmother and the bartender they were staying with who lived upstairs.

The fire, which appears to have started in one of the apartments above the pub, was the deadliest fire in Minneapolis in nearly 24 years and exploded 11 days after a routine inspection of  McMahon's Irish Pub. That inspection revealed an untested fire alarm system, missing extinguishers and other fire code violations.

"The building just blew up," said Tiffany Churchill, who lived next to the apartment where the fire might have started. She ran from the building with her 2-year-old twin girls.

The victims' names were not released, but friends and relatives identified them as bartender Ryan Richner, 25, and five members of the Gervais family: Anne, 43; Andrew, 26; twins Aliciah and Austin, 3, and 2-year-old Colten. The family -- a mother, son and three grandkids -- had planned to spend one night in the apartment as they searched for permanent housing, friends and family said.

"There were huge flames, smoke everywhere," said Barbara Guttman, who lives near the corner of E. Lake Street and 29th Avenue S. She described "a towering inferno, breaking glass and flames leaping from the building."

Mayor R.T. Rybak, consoling the victims' families, called the fire a "terrible tragedy."

As the 6 a.m. fire spread through the two-story building, more than 40 firefighters attacked what quickly became a dangerous conflagration.

Minneapolis Fire Chief Alex Jackson said four firefighters were nearly engulfed in a flashover -- an explosive phenomenon that kills firefighters every year -- but anticipated it, hit the floor and escaped.

"It rolled over their head," said Jackson. "We're very fortunate."

John Fruetel, the department's assistant chief of operations, said late Friday that investigators hadn't yet identified the fire's cause, though the intensity of damage in the northwest corner of the second floor made it appear it originated there, he said. After searchers with dogs located the last remains late Friday, police officers were assigned to guard the gutted structure overnight until arson investigators could resume their task Saturday.

"It's a police matter now," Fruetel said. Minneapolis police Sgt. Chris Karakostas said at the scene that fatal fires typically are treated as homicide scenes until arson is ruled out.

The charred building dates to 1912 and housed six apartments above the tavern. Before 2007, the bar was called the Poodle Club for years.

Searching for a home

As firefighters tried to douse the flames, brothers Matthew and Dillon Gervais frantically used cell phones to try to find their mother and brother. They'd last seen the two at 10 p.m. Thursday when they changed a headlight on Andrew's car. It was still parked in McMahon's lot Friday.

"I don't have a good feeling about this," said Denise Schmidt, the bartender's mother. She said the Gervais family members who died included the mother and brother of her son's girlfriend, Champagne Gervais, who was not at the apartment. The Gervais family had lived in Forest Lake and was trying to locate affordable housing in Minneapolis.

"They didn't have a place to live," said Tera Sorenson, a family friend. "They kind of stayed at different places here and there."

She described the Gervaises as "a poor family [with] not much money. They couldn't afford high rent prices." Sorenson said Andrew Gervais was unemployed and was seeking permanent custody of the kids from his ex-girlfriend, Savannah Hjellming.

Those children were "bundles of joy," Champagne Gervais said through tears as she huddled with friends and family outside the building.

Schmidt said her son was a popular figure at McMahon's and dropped out of broadcasting school because he loved the job and the convenience of a $500-a-month, two-bedroom apartment just up the stairs. "Everybody loved him," she said. "I went down to the bar ... everybody came up to me and said what a great son I had."

Sandy Pearson, whose family has owned the bar for nearly 40 years, said 12 people lived in the six apartments. The fire displaced 10 adults and seven children, said Ed Newman of the Red Cross. They were put up in hotels and given assistance for clothing and food.

Code violations disputed

Chief Jackson said investigators hadn't determined yet whether the apartments had working smoke detectors.

The apartments were due for inspection this year, according to Minneapolis city spokesman Matt Lindstrom. From records available Friday, the city couldn't determine when the apartments last had a regularly scheduled inspection.

Inspectors responded to two complaints from residents since 2005, neither of which had to do with smoke alarms. One involved a lack of heat, and a second last October came from a resident unhappy about bed bugs and the building's condition. He described exposed wiring, cracked ceilings, leaning floors, shabby carpets, cracked rear steps and a "falling" rear porch railing.

The Fire Department scheduled an inspection for Nov. 2, but the resident canceled because he was sick, records show. He said he would call the city to make a new complaint if no changes occurred, and the case was closed.

Minneapolis Fire Marshal Bryan Tyner said the building owners were ordered to correct violations in the first-floor commercial space by March 30, but inspectors hadn't returned to see if they'd complied. Fire inspector Thierry Chevallier said he thinks the pub had failed to correct the problems listed in his inspection report, but the bar's owner disputes that.

"I didn't see a permit, and he has to send us pictures that it's done," said Chevallier, who went to the bar in late March after receiving a complaint about the bar's exit signs. "And when we went there, we saw other problems."

Dominic McMahon said that he owned the bar, not the building, and that the fire began in an upstairs apartment, not the bar. He also said the "violations were minor at most," and they had been corrected or were being fixed. According to authorities, the violations included a dirty kitchen ventilation hood, locked exits doors, and a lack of emergency lights and lighted exits in the basement.

McMahon said a dead battery in an exit sign was replaced, fire extinguishers were replaced, and the fire alarm system was working perfectly. In fact, he said the alarm company called him Friday morning to say the alarms had gone off in the building. "If it was broken, the company would have told us something is wrong," McMahon said.

He said a company was called and was scheduled to clean the hood system Monday. He said it was its responsibility to take out a permit.

Late Friday, Debbie Donovan, 46, stood outside the charred building recalling the pub's "warm vibe" Thursday night. She was there for the first of what was to be a series of rock jams hosted by musicians dubbing themselves the McMahonnequins.

She recalled having stepped outside for fresh air Thursday, looking up at the apartments and thinking, "We're here having a good time," she said. "And they're up there living a life."

Friday night, a makeshift memorial held six red and white, heart-shaped balloons -- one for each victim.

Staff writers Tony Kennedy, Paul McEnroe, Lora Pabst, Allie Shah, Abby Simons, Bill McAuliffe, Anthony Lonetree, David Chanen, Jane Friedmann and Curt Brown contributed to this report.

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