After a quick shopping run Thursday night, retired mail carrier Michelle Benson drove her usual route back to where her northeast Minneapolis apartment building had recently stood.
When she arrived, she was jarred back to a harsh reality: Her home and nearly everything she owned were gone in a fire she fled days earlier that also badly damaged several apartments and a string of Central Avenue street-level storefronts below.
“I unconsciously came back … before I realized I was up to the building,” instead of the downtown Minneapolis hotel room she has called home since Sunday’s blaze, Benson said. She attributed her misdirected travels to what she calls her “void. … I feel like I’m in a bubble.”
An electrical malfunction involving apartment fireplace cords is suspected of igniting the fire that scorched the connected buildings in the 2400 block of Central Avenue, according to Fire Department investigatory records released this week.
The blaze erupted in an apartment above El Taco Riendo and sent large plumes of smoke skyward as firefighters spent many hours battling the intense flames while hustling residents to safety.
No one was hurt, and now Benson is among several who are stitching their lives back together.
Benson recalled being in her bedroom when the fire broke out late in the afternoon and seeing flickering on the other side of the window blinds.
“I heard this crackling,” she said. “I open the blinds, and there was nothing but flames. I panicked.”
She clutched a cherished quilt her grandmother made and moved it to the living room, where she thought it would be safe, only to be forced to abandon it as the fire quickly grew more intense.
Fellow displaced resident Mike Tierney said he and Anna Levin have been going back twice a day every day to their apartment above the coffee shop where she worked ahead of starting medical school in the fall.
They peered in the window hoping they might see something they can salvage from the one-bedroom unit they and border collie Olive called home.
Tierney is grateful the three of them were taken in by his sister and brother-in-law in the Whittier neighborhood of Minneapolis even as the coronavirus outbreak puts a strain on everyday life.
“They said we can stay as long as we want, but I wonder if they knew what they got themselves into,” he said with a laugh.
“Just trying to order socks online, routine things you don’t think about,” is difficult, he said, when others are flooding online outlets for hygienic and other essentials because of the pandemic.
Tierney, 32, said he and Levin, 29, are “extremely grateful and overwhelmed to see such kindness and generosity,” including an online fundraising effort initiated by friends, “especially when so many other people have lost work, and business owners are feeling overwhelmed by the pressure that has come with this health crisis.”
As for what was rescued and lost in the fire, Tierney is relieved that Levin filled a backpack with computers, chargers and vital papers, and they were able to rescue their dog. “We put them in the car … and we just kind of sat there and didn’t really know what to do for the next several hours.”
Benson told her story through tears, but the tears shifted from grief to relief when she explained how she saved a book, “Pray, Hope and Don’t Worry,” and two envelopes. One held a lock of hair from her late brother, the other a few strands collected from her mother in her final days last fall.
“She and I were very close,” Benson said. “She was dying, and I crawled into bed with her. I remember clipping her hair and putting it an envelope. She knew I was there and I was talking to her.”