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At the scene of a fatal garage fire in St. Paul, Comcast workers looked over the damage caused to a fiber cable line.

Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

Fire kills St. Paul man living in mom's garage

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG
  • Star Tribune
  • March 22, 2012 - 8:13 PM

Donald Pnewski Jr. was filled with mixed emotions the last few days. He was sad about his imminent move out of St. Paul's West Seventh neighborhood where he had spent most of his 53 years. He also was excited about moving out of his mother's cluttered garage where he slept in a sleeping bag next to a space heater.

In a few days, he'd be moving into his own apartment.

Pnewski did odd jobs for money and spent much of his adult life living with his mother in his childhood home on the corner of W. Juno Avenue and Victoria Street. But years ago she, in her 70s and dependent on an oxygen tank, gave him the boot because of his heavy drinking and smoking.

Pnewski moved into the garage out back, where he lived year-round for seven years until Thursday, when an early morning fire killed him and destroyed the structure.

"I just saw him yesterday and he was fine," said his friend, Chris Beaty. "I was so happy for him."

He slept on a couch in the middle of the garage. There was junk all around the perimeter as well as a lawnmower, a snowblower and two 1-gallon jugs of gasoline, typically full. On nice days, he opened the overhead door and cracked open a beer with friends.

When his mother, Dorothy Pnewski, needed help inside, she flipped off power to the garage. That was how he knew she needed him, and friends said that despite his drinking he looked after his mother until she died several months ago at age 80.

"He was a really good guy," said his longtime friend Tracey Kortkamp.

Kortkamp had been in the garage Wednesday afternoon. Pnewski held up his sleeping bag to show how the space heater had recently burned a large hole in it. She used two hands to illustrate its size.

"You have to quit doing that," she told him. "You're going to burn the place down."

She reached over and unplugged the heater herself. It was unsafe, she thought, and the weather had been nice lately.

Kortkamp's daughter, who lives nearby, saw the garage ablaze about 2 a.m. Thursday and called 911. As a fire engine pulled up to the scene, the roof collapsed. In a matter of seconds, all four walls folded in over each other.

The pile of rubble burned hot and fast.

"It's not unusual to have a garage engulfed in fire when we get there because of what's in there -- combustible and flammable liquids," said St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard.

As all-encompassing as the fire was, it took firefighters only about 15 minutes to extinguish because of the way everything fell into one big pile.

A neighbor ran over and said: There's a man inside. Pnewski was found dead about 6 feet from the door.

"We didn't even know he was in there at first," Zaccard said. "You don't expect to find someone living in the garage. A garage is not for living in."

The garage had grown more cluttered lately as items were moved from the vacant house to prepare it for sale. Pnewski also had been packing for his move.

"He was just looking so forward to it," Beaty said.

His two grown children stopped by and put flowers over blackened debris. They declined to comment.

Neighbor Meg Robinson said Pnewski loved to regale people with neighborhood history and always played with, then returned, her escape-artist dog who routinely found his way into Pnewski's garage.

"He was a real great guy," Robinson said. "He always had me laughing."

Zaccard said the fire's cause has not been determined, but it does not appear suspicious.

Although authorities can't be certain, it appeared as if the space heater and an electrical blanket were not plugged in at the time, he said.

The fire started near where Pnewski slept.

It is St. Paul's fourth fire fatality this year. The previous three were attributed to careless smoking, the No. 1 cause of fire fatalities in the state, Zaccard said.

Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report. @ChaoStribs • 612-270-4708

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