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Dave Roepke, Published October 12 2010

Apartment fire: 'I've never seen anything like it'

Their apartment complex engulfed in flames, Jason and Sarah Swier kept their eyes peeled on their second-floor balcony.

They weren’t looking for anything particular. Like many of the roughly 150 residents who lived at the Galleria On 42nd Street, the couple got their dog out and were OK themselves.

Faced with the massive blaze, they just didn’t know what else to do but stare.

“We just keep looking up there and wondering,” said Sarah Swier. “It’s like my brain is numb.”

Mixed among hundreds of onlookers, the displaced residents of the apartment building were all in much the same spot as the Swiers on Monday night – clutching what they were able to grab on their way out and wondering what’s next.

The complex had a pet-friendly policy that allowed dogs, so numerous tenants were plopped down on the other side of 42nd Street with kennels at their side or leashes in hand.

Jim Peterson was still at work in the food court of the West Acres Shopping Center when he got first word of the fire, which began just before 6 p.m. His mind raced to his dog and one insistent thought: “I gotta get home!”

When he arrived at the scene, battling heavy traffic, fire crews wouldn’t let him inside.

“I just pleaded with them. I wanted to run in myself,” Peterson said. “Nothing else mattered but the dog.”

A firefighter did find his pet, but Peterson was still worried people may have been injured or other pets might have been trapped.

Fire officials said that no injuries or fatalities were reported.

A Red Cross shelter was set up Monday night at Fargo’s Calvary United Methodist Church, and fire officials said 56 people were taken to the shelter by about 9 p.m. City buses were used to transport some residents there.

The shelter at the church was also housing pets for the night. By 9:30 p.m., firefighters had saved eight unidentified pets and expected to find more. The church was no longer accepting pets this morning, according to a church official who called The Forum.

At the scene of the fire, Runa Olson was reunited with her Yorkie-poo about three hours after the fire broke out. A tearful Olson thanked the firefighters and told them the dog was all she cared about.

“I pretty much thought he was dead,” she said.

Molly Criswell was pretty sure her cat didn’t make it. Criswell, 75, was out on her balcony when smoke began billowing from under the eaves of the building.

“We thought, ‘That’s not right,’ ” she said.

Criswell made it out fine, keeping well ahead of the dark smoke rolling down the hall, but she forgot the cat. “It was just a little guy,” she said of the kitten.

Though the fire spread quickly, multiple residents said they were able to walk out in a calm manner even as smoke was beginning to fill the hallways.

Jesse Ostlund was watching a movie in his home when his smoke detector went off, though he suspected it was a false alarm. Within minutes, he went from watching a movie to feeling like he was in one.

He figured the fire would be manageable when he first got outside, but not for long.

“After about five minutes you couldn’t see the flames anymore. Then after 10 minutes, it was crazy,” he said.

Calen Mahar had a similar reaction when he made it out: It looked like a fire small enough to extinguish easily. By shortly past 7 p.m., he was seeing flames ring around the entire roof of the building. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m speechless,” he said.

Adam Holisky was impressed by how orderly residents and onlookers were in responding to the directions of fire officials and police. He was also happy he got his cat out.

“Possessions are one thing, but everybody’s safe, and that’s what’s important in life,” he said.

But it was hard not to at least think about how the contents of the apartment will be replaced, said Sarah Swier. She and her husband were planning to buy a house soon and had many legal documents collected. Plus, she couldn’t shake the thought of her scorched wedding dress.

Jason Swier, her husband, was home at the time and for a moment considered snatching some irreplaceable items. But he couldn’t decide what was most important to grab, beyond essentials like the wallet, keys and phone.

In the end, his wife said, the most important stuff was saved.

“My brain flashes back and forth,” she said. “Then I just think, ‘My husband and dog were all right.’ ”


Lost a pet?

Apartment residents who may have lost pets in the fire can call Calvary United Methodist Church at (701) 232-5650 to see if they were rescued. Any unclaimed pets will be taken to the F-M Humane Society, which can be reached at (701) 239-0077.


Forum reporter Amy Dalrymple contributed to this report.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535