Investigating a Deadly Fire

Lake Street tenants spotted host of fire hazards

Tenants describe a host of hazards at the Lake Street building.

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Dylan Gervais, left, and brother Matthew Gervais, right, watch near the scene of the fire. Their brother Andrew, who lived above McMahons, was missing at the time.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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A persistent smell of gas around a stove. Hanging wires where a smoke detector once worked. A "rat's nest of wiring" protruding from a wall. A blocked doorway in a bedroom. No fire extinguishers.

Four tenants who survived last week's deadly fire at 3001 E. Lake St. in Minneapolis recalled a number of fire hazards in their aging building on Lake Street days after the blaze killed six people in a corner apartment, left 11 people homeless and destroyed a downstairs bar.

The place was "a firetrap - and you can quote me on that," said Tom Stinchfield, who lived in the building for 17 years and apparently was one of the few tenants with a working smoke detector on the day of the fire.

This week, the city of Minneapolis revealed that fire inspectors did not check the apartments for at least 16 years. Some of the conditions tenants described to the Star Tribune would have been cited as fire safety violations, state and local officials said Thursday.

"Most local fire inspectors would look at these as serious issues," said Jon Nisja, the fire code expert for the state fire marshal. The smell of gas and lack of a working smoke detector in at least one unit would be "red flags," Nisja said. On Thursday, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner confirmed that Andrew Gervais, 26, was one of the victims, saying he died of smoke inhalation and "thermal injuries."

Investigators think the cause of the fire may have been accidental, but the investigation is ongoing.

The owner of the building, Harold "Pat" Blumenthal, and his daughter who managed the property, Sandy Pearson, have not responded to repeated requests for comment this week.

No extinguishers in hallways

In interviews with the Star Tribune, tenants who lived above McMahon's Irish Pub said they put up with mice, cracked plaster and worn-out carpet in exchange for low rent on one of the main drags in south Minneapolis. The six apartments housed a slice of the city: a bartender, a janitor, a roofer, two factory workers and a hotel housekeeper.

Stinchfield, 50, a late-night disc jockey for KFAI radio in Minneapolis, said the only fire inspection he recalls took place in the early 1990s.

Last October, Stinchfield complained to the city about a number of suspected code violations, including protruding wires in the apartment where the fire would later start. "I knew that when the fire marshal came out, he'd find all kinds of things that needed to be fixed," he said. But he canceled a planned inspection on Nov. 2 and never followed up after the landlord dealt with his most pressing problem: an infestation of bedbugs.

Stinchfield was jolted awake last Friday to a "crashing on the wall." He glanced out the window and saw neighbor Ryan Richner's apartment spitting out flames. A few minutes later his smoke detector went off. The fact that Richner and his five guests are now dead fills Stinchfield with regret.

"I thought I could have done more to protect my neighbors, and I didn't," he said.

Tiffany Churchill, 22, remembers spotting a hole in the ceiling and wires dangling down when she moved into the building two months ago. She found a dust-caked smoke detector in another room. She put a battery in it, but it still didn't work.

The kitchen always smelled like gas, Churchill said, and the top of the stove was always warm. Yet she said she never complained about any of those things to the landlord.

"I really wasn't focused on that," she said. "I was trying to settle in."

Each of the four tenants interviewed by the Star Tribune said the property had no fire extinguishers, either in the units or in hallways, as required by the state fire code. Nor did their apartments have carbon monoxide detectors, another requirement.

Keith Gervais, whose son died in the fire, once visited Richner's apartment and saw the bundle of wires that disturbed Stinchfield. Gervais said the coating was flaking off, and the wires appeared about 50 years old. Gervais believed the wires were live because they were connected to a fuse box.

Minneapolis Fire Marshal Brian Tyner confirmed Thursday that the gas leak and missing smoke alarms would be fire code violations, as would the lack of fire extinguishers in a common area. No carbon monoxide detectors would also be a violation, Tyner and Nisja said.

Denise Schmidt, Richner's mother, fought back the tears when she heard about the potential code violations.

"That just makes my heart drop again," Schmidt said. "I have been trying to make sense out of the whole thing. Of the six apartments, why Ryan's, and why couldn't they get out? It really concerns me."

Two views on landlord

Tenants disagreed about the quality of their lodgings.

"We were secure," said Raymundo Mendoza, 43, who lived above the bar with his wife and three children. "We had exits. The apartment had six windows and all six worked."

Richard Otken, a 63-year-old janitor, said he generally fixed problems himself in exchange for flexibility on his $400 rent payment. Pearson "never gave me any problems," Otken said. "Of course, I never gave her any problems."

Others renters described a landlord slow to fix problems. Champagne Gervais, Richner's girlfriend, said her boyfriend couldn't get the landlord to deal with a ceiling light that never worked and drafty windows.

A hallway outside Stinchfield's bedroom was blocked off and turned into storage for the landlord, so his bedroom had just one way out, a code violation, according to Nisja. But Stinchfield worried that if he made a stink about problems like that, his rent would go up.

Stinchfield said he knew Blumenthal well, spending a decade as his employee, working at the downstairs bar as a cook, waiter and bouncer. Three generations of the family were in the bar business, starting in 1946 when Blumenthal's father, a Romanian immigrant, bought his first tavern. The old Poodle Lounge occupied the ground floor of Blumenthal's Anthony Hotel at 806 Hennepin Ave.

The hotel and the bar burned in a spectacular fire in 1973. No one was injured. The following year, the Poodle Club reopened at 3001 E. Lake St., where the Blumenthal family was a community institution for 30 years. McMahon's Irish Pub took its place in 2007.

Staff writers Heron Marquez Estrada, Pam Louwagie and John Wareham contributed to this report. Rfurst@startribune.com • 612-673-7382 Jshiffer@startribune.com • 612-673-4271

  • about this series

  • An apartment fire that killed six people in Minneapolis revealed serious flaws in the city's inspection practices and prompted major changes in the system. The apartments, which had multiple fire-code violations, were not inspected for at least 16 years.
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