People displaced by a fire at a Burnsville apartment complex began picking up their shares of a $1 million anonymous donation. "Whoever it is, thank you so much," one resident said.
They sat bundled in their coats and hats across folding tables from apartment management staff members, who handed them checks and offered hugs and handshakes.
They had come to receive their share of a $1 million anonymous donation to the displaced residents of Burncliff's Building A, which was consumed by fire Monday. Each apartment got about $17,500 from the million-dollar pot.
Maria Aguilar, one of nearly 200 who lost their homes in the blaze, dabbed her eyes with a tissue and hugged staff members, thanking them for the support.
"I just couldn't believe it," Aguilar said, pulling the check from the envelope as her family gathered around. "Whoever it is, thank you so much."
When she finds an apartment, the gift from the anonymous donor will help buy beds so the family doesn't have to sleep on the floor, she said.
Mindy Callaway lost everything when the building went up in flames. On Wednesday, she was among those who returned to the complex on Parkwood Drive to get a fresh start. "It's going to be hard, but you can actually start to rebuild," Callaway, 28, said through tears after receiving her check.
"I'm so happy that someone has a big enough heart to give that much," resident Ashley Stevens said.
The Burnsville fire marshal has not determined the cause of the blaze, which sent residents into sub-zero weather and a nearby Red Cross shelter. Residents of Building A lost almost everything in the fire, but nobody was injured. Building B, where the checks were handed out Wednesday, was not damaged.
The displaced residents have been showered with donations.
In addition to the check from the $1 million anonymous donor, they also received checks on Wednesday from the Goodman Group, the company that owns and manages the property, to refund their security deposits and December rent payments. Yet another check gave residents money donated by Goodman Group Chairman John B. Goodman and fellow businessman Nasser Kazeminy, also well known in Minnesota as a political donor with close ties to Sen. Norm Coleman. Goodman and Kazeminy each donated $50,000.
Checks and pets
Tammy Brynteson, 43, said she and her husband, Jay Brynteson, are getting through the fire aftermath "one day at a time" but remain amazed by the community support.
The couple were staying over Christmas with friends in Bloomington as they began looking for an apartment. The Bryntesons did have renters' insurance, but the checks, particularly the $17,498 that they received from the anonymous donor, will go a long way, Brynteson said. She said she wished they could thank that donor in person.
"It is truly a wonderful act," she said.
Wednesday, the couple continued to look for their 19-pound calico cat, and they hadn't given up hope. Neither had Jackie Weller, a 51-year-old nurse for the Minneapolis public schools who lost her two cats.
At American Boarding Kennel in Burnsville, owner David Bornhofer said he had reunited two rats and two guinea pigs with their family, and three cats with another family. He estimated that about 20 pets remain missing.
"When we went to the American Boarding Kennel, they told us that our cats can live for a long time, even though they're not used to being out in this weather," Brynteson said Wednesday.
Bornhofer said he's received no more animals from the apartments since he reunited the handful that had come in Monday night. He said nobody had a fix on how many animals might have died or survived and run off.
"We do have live traps out and we're trying to catch any that might be loose and running around the neighborhood," Bornhofer said. "What we're hoping is that we bait them with food, and we hope that nobody else is putting food out for them, because they'll just go to that and they won't go to the live traps. We're still optimistic that we will be able to reunite some of the owners with their pets, but how many, we don't know."
The residents of Building B, which was evacuated as a precaution but not damaged, were allowed to return on Tuesday afternoon. More than 100 residents of Building A are still homeless.
Many, including Aguilar and her three children, are staying with family members until they can find new apartments.
Residents look for housing
A makeshift office inside Building B welcomed residents all day Wednesday. A banner hung outside the building proclaimed Goodman Group's support for the residents. Snacks, soda and coffee awaited them in the entry.
In the lobby, tearful smiles and hugs were abundant as residents met with management staff at tables to sign paperwork cancelling their leases and receive the checks to help them rebuild their lives.
The apartment complex also hosted a housing fair, where the Goodman Group and other Twin Cities area property owners helped displaced residents choose new apartments, many offering rent specials for the fire victims, said Frank French, chief operating officer of the Goodman Group of Chaska.
Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz said the community's response to the fire right before Christmas has been amazing.
"The miracle of the loaves and fishes is alive and well in Burnsville," Kautz said. "That spirit of giving and that spirit of caring, that was so evident and remarkable."