Survivors of Lake Street fire heard no alarms

Tenants say they didn't hear smoke detectors sound an alarm on the morning of the Lake Street blaze that killed six.

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Linda Armstrong, a customer at McMahon’s Pub, placed flowers Monday at a memorial for the six people who died in Friday’s fire. The fire killed Ryan Richner, a bartender at McMahon’s, and five members of the Gervais family: Anne; her son Andrew, and his three young children, Colten, 2, and 3-year-old twins Austin and Aliciah Gervais-Hjellming.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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Two tenants who survived last week's deadly apartment fire Minneapolis say they never heard smoke detectors go off as they awoke to a blaze that quickly consumed their second-floor homes, killing six people.

State law requires apartments to be equipped with functioning smoke detectors.

Raymundo Mendoza, who lived above a downstairs tavern for five years with his wife and three children, said his apartment had two detectors in the bedrooms and one in the hall. Three days before the fire, tortillas scorched on the stove, setting off the alarm in the hall.

But no one in Mendoza's family heard the alarms shriek on the morning of the fire. Mendoza said he woke up when he smelled smoke. Tiffany Churchill, who lived above McMahon's Pub just two months, said she didn't know the building was on fire until she smelled smoke and saw an "orange flash" of light.

Minneapolis police declined to comment on whether the city's investigation determined whether any smoke detectors were functioning at the time of the fire.

The building is owned by Harold Blumenthal. Neither Blumenthal nor his daughter, Sandy Pearson -- who manages the property -- responded to requests for comment about the building's smoke detectors.

The blaze was so hot it incinerated most of the evidence investigators normally use to determine a fire's cause, Assistant Chief Cherie Penn said Monday. Arson has not been ruled out, but the fire does not appear to have a suspicious origin, Penn said.

The fire gutted six apartments and damaged McMahon's Irish Pub in the 98-year-old brick building at the corner of E. Lake Street and 30th Avenue S. Investigators believe it started in the apartment where six people died.

Mendoza, 43, said the fire alarms weren't working when his family first moved into the building five years ago, but he said a maintenance worker quickly fixed the problem.

Another Blumenthal tenant, Kevin Pearson, who said he has rented a house from the family for nearly nine years, praised his landlord for responding promptly to problems. "They're great landlords ... If I call on something, they have a guy who comes right away, he takes care of it," said Pearson, who is not related to Sandy Pearson.

Mendoza said Monday that his landlord usually changed the smoke detector batteries in the spring, near the daylight savings time change.

But on Friday, he said, nobody in his family heard the alarms go off.

"I don't know if it was because I was asleep or because I was afraid, but I did not hear the alarms," Mendoza said.

As his family rushed out of the building, Mendoza stopped long enough to knock on the door of a neighbor who was supposed to leave for work about an hour after the fire started. He said he opened the door and yelled in to the man and they all ran downstairs.

"By the time we made it to the bottom of the stairs, the firefighters were there," Mendoza said.

The family was not able to carry anything out of the building. He said he went back up to the apartment to try to retrieve a set of keys for his wife's 1995 Jeep, but the fire was too intense.

"By the time I got there, smoke had invaded the apartment," he said Monday.

"We lost everything," said Mendoza, who was looking for a place to live. "The truth is that God helped us because it was a very difficult situation."

Alarm system not required

Under the state fire code, an apartment building isn't required to have a fire alarm system unless there are at least 16 units. The East Lake building, which had six units, was supposed to have working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, fire extinguishers and clear exit routes.

Sprinklers aren't required for structures less than three stories tall or that occupy less than 9,250 square feet. The apartment building was up for inspection this year.

A March inspection of the downstairs tavern showed that McMahon's fire alarm system had not been tested. Other violations included missing fire extinguishers, locked exit doors and a lack of emergency lights. But bar owner Dominic McMahon said that the fire alarm system was working at the time of the fire and that most of the other violations had been addressed.

Staff writers Heron Marquez Estrada and Tim Harlow contributed to this report. Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329

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