Bloomington residents were forced to drop their toddlers from upper stories - or jump themselves - to escape an early morning apartment fire.
As he approached the burning apartment building Tuesday, Bloomington police Sgt. Jim Ousley saw the flames pouring out of a ground-floor unit, and then he heard the cries from the floors above: "There's babies inside," the voices said. "There's babies."
He and several other officers positioned themselves in the snow below, and as smoke billowed from the second- and third-floor units at 9840 Nicollet Av. S., the toddlers began dropping from windows into the officers' waiting arms.
"I wasn't concerned about the welfare of the kids as they jumped," Ousley recalled. "I was concerned that there was no alternative but than to jump."
As a 3-year-old girl neared, he said, he fell to his knees to cushion the impact, then carried her to a warm squad car.
"She was a brave little girl," he said.
The blaze in the 11-unit building broke out about 4:45 a.m., forcing residents to drop half a dozen children from the second- and third-story windows and sending several people to the hospital.
When Nadine White awoke to the smell of something burning in her apartment Tuesday, she knew there was only one thing to do: jump.
White pulled on pants and a shirt and jumped barefoot from a second-floor window, landing in a pile of snow that cushioned her fall. Her feet grew numb almost immediately in below-zero temperatures. A police officer picked her up and carried her to the building next door.
"I don't know what we're going to do," she said, crying and shaking Tuesday afternoon as she huddled on a chair in a freezing apartment reeking of smoke. "We just paid the rent. What are we going to do?"
When police and fire personnel arrived, several people were trapped inside, said Bloomington Assistant Fire Chief Jay Forster.
"There was smoke everywhere," said third-floor resident Kenny Jackson, who was awakened by his mother as the fire raged. "I knew we weren't getting out through the hallway."
Jackson said his little sister, 6-year-old Channiah Crockett, was dropped to a waiting police officer from their apartment window "and fell on her back. I think the snow helped [break] her fall."
Sensing that there was no escape route in the building, Jackson said he decided to "hang out the window," and wait for a fire ladder and not risk injury by jumping. That ladder arrived, and he came away unscathed. Four other relatives in his residence also got out safely, he said.
Jackson's cousin, Amanda Miller, 24, said she awoke to her aunt yelling, "The building's on fire!" When they opened the third-floor apartment door, smoke poured in, Miller said.
"I jumped out first; it was just a natural reaction," she said. Except for a scratch on her leg, she was unhurt.
Bloomington Police Cmdr. Mark Stehlik said one officer was below a child about to be dropped head-first from the third floor. "He said, 'Don't drop [the child] head first,' " Stehlik said. The youngster was then dropped feet-first.
Nine people were taken to hospitals, Forster said. At least one was seriously hurt, he said.
The American Red Cross Twin Cities Area Chapter said it was providing shelter for more than 30 people.
Bloomington officials inspected the building on Sept. 27 and ordered graffiti removed from exterior bricks, torn screens repaired, carpeting in common halls cleaned, dryer exhaust vents covered and garbage on the property picked up. When it was reinspected, all but the graffiti order had been met, said Lynn Moore, Bloomington's environmental health manager.
Residents picking up belongings Tuesday afternoon found that walls and the ceiling in the stairwell were blistered and black. Stairs were caked with frozen piles of ashes and ice.
Ruby Clark, 64, was not home when the fire was reported but returned when a friend called her. She asked crews to go into her apartment to retrieve two cats. Her gray tabby "Mama" was found hiding in a closet. Her son's cat was found during a second search of the smoke-damaged unit.
"This is horrible, unbearable," Clark said. "I've never seen nothing like this." She plans to stay with a sister in Bloomington.
White's fiancé, Thomas Jackman, was working a night shift stocking shelves in Apple Valley when he learned of the fire. As a shaken White wept and walked around the second-floor apartment she said she had loved for two years, Jackman paused in his packing.
"I'm just grateful my wife made it out," he said.
"The third floor is all burned," White said. "We were blessed."