A 77-year-old man died and two other residents were injured in an early-morning fire Friday at a senior living complex in Woodbury.

The fire broke out about 4:15 a.m. at Woodbury Villa, part of a senior living campus near Woodbury High School, prompting the evacuation of 71 residents to a nearby building at the complex.

Authorities identified the victim as Russell W. Johnson. The cause of the fire, which started and was contained to the unit where Johnson was found, was still being investigated as of late Friday.

Two women were hospitalized for smoke-related injuries that were not life-threatening, said city spokeswoman Michelle Okada.

A firefighter also was treated for smoke inhalation at the scene.

“We’re heartbroken by the death of one of our tenants,” said Woodbury Villa spokesman Jon Austin. “We will do everything in our power to assist the investigators in determining the cause. … We are also looking to the needs of two other tenants who were taken to the hospital for treatment.”

Within a few hours of the fire, all but nine residents had been allowed back in their apartments, Okada said.

Some apartments near the unit where the fire occurred sustained smoke and water damage, Austin said. Residents of those apartments were relocated to other facilities or were staying with relatives, he said.

Helen Miller, 93, said the building alarm woke her up around 4:30 a.m. She got dressed and was ready to leave by the time people arrived to escort residents to an elevator and out of the building.

“The smoke was terrific,” said Miller, who lives on the third floor. “I just touched stuff out in the hall and my hands got black.”

Miller and other residents were taken to a transitional facility next door, where they were served coffee and waited until they could be allowed back into their apartments.

“As far as I could see, there wasn’t any panic,” said Miller, a Women’s Army Corps veteran who plotted bombing missions in London during World War II. “Most of us are quite elderly and have been through a lot.”

Elvira Matteson, 92, said a firefighter banged on her door, telling her to get out. Wearing nightclothes and shoes but no socks, she made her way to Metro Transit buses parked outside for residents.

“There were a lot of undressed people,” she said.

Later Friday morning, personnel at the facility asked reporters to stay off the property. A remediation company was on the site Friday doing some preliminary assessments of the damage, Austin said.

Woodbury Villa is a 75-unit apartment building that offers assisted living services to seniors. While there are smoke alarms, the building doesn’t have sprinklers, Austin said. The building was constructed in the 1980s when the facility began operation, he said.

Smoking isn’t allowed in the building, but there is a smoking area outside. Not all apartments have kitchens, but the unit where the fire occurred did, he said.

The city inspects the building each year. In its most recent inspection in November, the building was found to be in compliance with fire and building codes, Okada said.

There weren’t any fire-related calls last year to the facility, although Tuesday authorities responded to a report of a smell of smoke in the dining area. The odor was traced to a bad light valance.

While the state conducts annual health and safety inspections of nursing homes, Woodbury Villa is considered an apartment building so inspections aren’t required, said Darcy Miner, director of the health regulation division at the state Department of Health. The state oversees the licensee, Senior Care Woodbury LLC, that provides home care at the site. In the past three years, the agency hasn’t investigated any complaints against the company, Miner said.

The facility is operated by the nonprofit Senior Care Communities Inc., based in St. Paul. Senior Care also has locations in Eden Prairie, Minneapolis and Forest Lake.

Matteson was allowed into her second-floor unit at 9 a.m. She found nothing damaged and couldn’t smell anything, “but I’ve got a cold,” she said.

“I’ve never had anything like this happen like this before,” she said.

 

Staff writers Paul Walsh and Tim Harlow contributed to this report.