WINONA, MINN. – Fire erupted early Friday in downtown Winona, burning through an Islamic center that has been a religious hub for decades and is where the blaze apparently began.
Though the block's upper stories contain dozens of apartments, there were no known injuries.
The fire was first reported to authorities about 2 a.m. and was contained by late morning, Fire Chief Curt Bittle said. Three buildings are a total loss, he said, including the Winona Islamic Center, where the fire burned for some time before it was reported. Throughout the day Friday, crews pulled apart and discarded the charred remains as dozens of residents looked on.
Ahmed El-Afandi, who started the religious center 20 years ago, said the fire began there. Investigators "don't know anything yet" about the fire's cause, he said. "Nobody [in the community] has given us any trouble."
The St. Paul office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) dispatched several investigators to assist authorities on the scene, but the agency said its participation should not be interpreted as pointing to arson as a cause.
"There is no indication at this time that this was intentionally set," said ATF spokesman Robert Schmidt, who explained that the agency is being pulled in to "increase the manpower" assigned to investigate the blaze.
As he watched from the scene, El-Afandi characterized the religious center, which includes a mosque, as "pretty much gone."
By late afternoon, investigators and firefighters were still gathered near the L-shaped building's two entrances on Center and 3rd Streets.
In the middle of the night, a friend of Luai Elfaki ran to his door, yelling a warning: "Smoke!"
Before fleeing the building, Elfaki knocked as loud as could on his neighbor's door until he woke. Watching crews in the afternoon pile blackened wood, Elfaki, 36, bemoaned what he left behind, "my passport, ID, Social Security card …"
As he ticked them off, friend Nabih Elteir playfully pushed on his chest. "But you're fine. You're fine," he told Elfaki, smiling. "We still have you."
"The good thing is all the people are OK," said Elfaki, a Sudanese refugee studying political science at Winona State University.
He had lived in the apartment for about a year. For now, he'll sleep in a campus residence hall, as will other displaced students.
Cause for concern
The blaze shut down a central chunk of the southeast Minnesota city's downtown Friday. Buildings were evacuated. Blocks were closed to traffic to allow firefighters access to hydrants and room for running their hoses, said Deputy Police Chief Tom Williams.
Williams concurred with El-Afandi that his department has dealt with "no trouble whatsoever" in connection with the Islamic center.
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the organization would monitor the investigation into the start of the blaze but had no evidence that anything was suspicious. Hooper said there is cause for concern any time a mosque is involved in a blaze or targeted for vandalism or graffiti, particularly so close to the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Earlier this year, the organization, which focuses on civil rights issues in the Islamic community, sent out information to mosques, suggesting ways to beef up security, including installing security cameras.
Winona Fire Marshal Jim Multhaup said that before investigators can even guess at a cause, they'll need to remove debris and reconstruct the scene, looking for fire patterns. They could have more answers in a week, he said.
The surprising thing about the fire is that there were no injuries, he said. "With the volume of the fire, all the apartments and the time — 2 a.m."
The Red Cross said it has found temporary shelter for 16 people. Some are in hotels and others in dormitories, said Dianne Thompson, the agency's emergency services coordinator.
'Quite glorious fire'
At the fire's peak, flames shot 20 feet above the roofline, filling the block with heavy smoke, Assistant Fire Chief Britt Hendrickson said. "It was a quite glorious fire."
Because of its ferocity and the way the buildings are connected, "we thought we were going to lose the entire block," Hendrickson said.
The building where the fire began also houses Paul Brosnahan's law firm, "but fortunately, our business records are all backed up electronically off-site," the attorney said, soon after visiting the burning block.
The fire "got into an attic, and it was jumping from building to building," he said, relaying information he received from fire officials. "I had an apartment with three young [Winona State] sophomores. Fortunately, all three young girls are safe."
Brosnahan said that when he arrived at the scene, he saw fire and police personnel from eight to 10 surrounding communities there in support, along with a Red Cross vehicle "feeding the students that were displaced. They vacated the whole block for smoke reasons."
The attorney added that "we just keep getting these offers from people" of office workspace for his firm.
Fahad Aldossari, 20, was on his way to McDonald's when he saw the smoke rising from the mosque. He rushed over and found his friends who lived in the upstairs apartments outside and OK.
But he is saddened by the loss of the Islamic center, where he has worshiped since 2011.
He turned toward the charred hole between two classic brick buildings, squinting behind black sunglasses. "It's painful," said Aldossari, a student at St. Mary's University.
Immigrants and refugees gravitated to the Islamic center not only for religion, but for the basics of getting along in an unfamiliar country, said Aldossari, who is from Saudi Arabia.
"When I came here, I didn't know how to do anything," he said. "All our information came from here."
Two dozen people who normally would have prayed at the Islamic center on Friday afternoon instead headed to Central Lutheran Church, across the street from Winona State. When Erik Floan, the worship and music director there, first heard news of the fire Friday morning, his first thought was "oh, Friday prayers."
So Central Lutheran leaders offered up their space. Other churches did the same, El Afandi said. "It's the least a good neighbor can do," Floan said.
Worshipers piled their shoes outside the church's hall, then faced north, facing a dramatic limestone wall. The prayer leader spoke of hope.
Staff writer Mark Brunswick contributed to this report.