A spectacular fire left nearly 200 residents of a sprawling Burnsville apartment complex homeless and bereft Monday night, and firefighters battling both fire and ice in subzero temperatures stayed on the scene through the night.
The blaze turned a 64-unit building at the Burncliff Apartments into a charred and steaming ruin, leaving scores of residents with little but the clothes on their backs just three days before Christmas. But there was good news in that no one was killed or injured, authorities said.
The fire, whose leaping flames and billowing smoke could be seen for miles away in the night sky, drew scores of screaming emergency vehicles from six fire departments and snarled traffic on nearby roadways for hours.
About 360 people were evacuated from two apartment buildings at 12312 Parkwood Dr., said Burnsville police Sgt. Dan Carlson. Many were taken to nearby Burnsville High School, where they spent the night.
The second building, home to half of the evacuees, appeared to be damaged by smoke but will be inhabitable again, Carlson said.
By late evening, about 80 people who had fled the buildings appeared likely to spend the night in the high school gym. The Red Cross, the Salvation Army and local businesses responded with cots, food, clothes and supplies, while relief workers tried to soothe fears, ease bewilderment and dry tears.
Some local residents offered the fire refugees shelter in their own homes, while others brought supplies and toys to the high school in hopes they could be of some comfort to neighbors who'd lost everything right before Christmas.
Carlson said authorities do not know what caused the fire and cautioned against speculation. Smoke detectors sounded, but the building had no sprinklers, he said. It was built in 1969, before they were required.
Resident Lyn Killian, 55, was having a snack at a neighbor's apartment when they heard a fire alarm. That usually means someone has burned their dinner, Killian said.
But then they heard pounding on the doors. Killian and her friend fled, and Killian knew she had lost everything, including her three cats and a family photo that was her Christmas present.
She echoed several residents who said they didn't have any insurance.
"It was something I couldn't afford," she said. "A lot of us are living penny to penny."
A vivid scene
The fire was reported about 4 p.m. Authorities said the first firefighters on the scene encountered smoke in a third-floor hallway, then flames on the second floor.
Soon more than a dozen police and fire vehicles carrying 120 rescue personnel from Burnsville, Eagan, Bloomington, Savage, Apple Valley and Lakeville surrounded the complex.
As the evening rush hour played out, flames danced above the roof. Clouds of steam and smoke, lit by the flames, spotlights and flashes from emergency vehicles, rose into the sky.
At least three ladder trucks hoisted firefighters with hoses to attack the inferno. Firefighters battled thickening and slippery ice as well as steaming rubble as the evening wore on.
Despite the frigid weather, there were no problems with hoses freezing, Carlson said.
"The biggest issue fighting a fire like this is changing out personnel, keeping them warm and fresh," he said.
Buses with heaters running stood at the scene to provide rest areas for firefighters. Everyone involved "responded admirably," Carlson said.
Tears for a lost home
Before being taken to the high school, dozens of residents swaddled in blankets milled around outside the three-story building.
Many of them, including Nay Armijos, said they had arrived home from work to find the complex in flames.
Armijos, a 31-year-old cook, had planned to stop at home and gather gifts to go celebrate Christmas with his four children nearby. With tears in his eyes, he watched as smoke filled his second-floor apartment while the apartment above it was consumed by flames.
"It's all gone. Now I don't have anything to give my children," he said.
How to help
And a spokeswoman for the Chaska business that manages the property, the Goodman Group, said it has set up a fund through U.S. Bank to help displaced residents. Chairman John Goodman and fellow businessman Nasser Kazeminy each donated $50,000, and are encouraging people to drop off Christmas presents or other donations at the Goodman Group, 1107 Hazeltine Blvd., Chaska, or to call 952-361-8000 for more information.
The Goodman Group is also working to find housing for the residents at other properties the company operates. As early as this afternoon, security deposits and December rent will be returned to residents.
Classes at Burnsville High will be held today, despite the school's use as a shelter for those displaced by the fire.
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