The smell of smoke was still in the air as Ashok Satapathy stood outside his blackened Plymouth apartment complex Friday afternoon, thankful to be alive.
"We are safe. We are alive," he said of himself, his wife and 1½-year-old son, echoing the sentiments of many at the Vicksburg Village Apartment complex, which was damaged in a four-alarm fire earlier in the day.
There were no significant injuries, but residents of at least 20 units will need a new place to stay.
Satapathy said he expects his insurance to provide him with a hotel. Otherwise, he has friends he can stay with.
His was one of the six units that sustained heavy fire damage and are uninhabitable. Another 20 apartments on the second and third floors sustained significant water damage, said Plymouth Fire Chief Richard Kline.
He said residents could be moved to vacant units within the complex.
Alarms at 4 a.m.
Alarms sounded in one of the buildings in the complex around 4 a.m., allowing 50 to 60 people to escape unharmed, Kline said.
Satapathy woke up to the fire alarm, grabbed his passport, keys and phone and awoke his wife and son. Remembering the numerous false alarms during his four years at the complex, it wasn't until he opened the door to a wall of thick smoke that he knew for sure something was wrong.
"This time it was not false," he said. If he had waited another two minutes, he's not sure he would have made it out, he said.
Satapathy came to the United States from India 10 years ago. His immigration papers were ruined by fire and water and his laptop, on which he kept backup copies, also was heavily damaged by water.
"What's next? Hours of phone calls to get my immigration stuff done," he said, adding he isn't sure how the process will work, but it could take months.
No sprinkler system
The building, near Rockford Road and Vicksburg Lane, did not have a sprinkler system. If it had, "we would not be having this conversation," Kline told the Star Tribune. "That shows the value of having a sprinkler system."
He said the building did meet city code; it is believed to have been built in the 1980s, when sprinkler systems were not required.
Investigators spent Friday trying to determine what caused the fire. Kline backed off on early reports that the blaze began in an air-conditioning unit on the third floor. He said the fire started on a deck on the third floor and went unnoticed for "quite some time."
It was called in by a passerby. By the time firefighters from Plymouth and several neighboring communities arrived, flames were shooting from the center of the 62-unit building. Flames engulfed all three stories of the building and spread to the attic, Kline said.
The Red Cross was on the scene helping people contact their insurance companies, offering counseling services and figuring out what residents' housing needs would be.
Ultimately, Satapathy considers himself lucky to be alive.
"All those documents and laptop, it'll take some time, but I'll [replace them], but life [was] saved, nobody was hurt ... that's good news."