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Published October 12 2010

UPDATED: Some homeless tenants to be allowed to retrieve items after massive apartment blaze

FARGO - Some of the 150 tenants left homeless when fire severely damaged the Galleria On 42nd apartment building in south Fargo Monday night are expected to be allowed back into their apartments this afternoon to retrieve belongings, fire officials said.

Fargo Fire Department spokesman Jesse Schmidt said tenants will have to show identification and be escorted by a firefighter. They’ll only be allowed on the first and second floors, which escaped fire damage but sustained water damage and, in the case of some second-floor units, are littered with cellulose insulation.

Firefighters remained on the scene this morning to knock down hot spots on the destroyed third floor of the 62-unit building at 3700 42nd St. S.

Assistant Fire Chief Larry Schuh said investigators were still trying to determine the origin and cause of the fire, but it appeared to have started on a first-floor balcony in the center of the three-story building. Reports that a grill on the balcony caused the fire hadn’t been substantiated, he said.

The building has a sprinkler system, but the fire started outside the building and burned up into the soffit and attic, which weren’t sprinkled, Schuh said. When the roof collapsed onto the third floor, it damaged the pipes feeding the sprinkler system, making it less effective, Schmidt said.

No tenants were injured in the blaze. Firefighters hadn’t found any pets that perished in the pet-friendly building, Schuh said.

One firefighter sustained a knee injury from using a pry bar, he said. Two firefighters who became trapped during the blaze were rescued and rejoined the firefight.

It wasn’t clear whether the building will be declared a total loss, Schuh said, adding it depends on whether the insurance company believes the third floor can be removed and rebuilt. Such badly damaged buildings often are razed and rebuilt, he said.

Inside the apartment, water still dripped from sagging ceiling tiles and fire alarms beeped to warn of their dwindling battery power after electricity was cut to the building.

Water pooled on laminate floors, and bubbling paint scarred the walls of some first-floor apartment units near the middle of the building. Second-floor units saw more severe water damage and fallout from ceilings being ripped down to reach the fire.

Schmidt said it’s unknown how many tenants had renter’s insurance. He said he asked about half a dozen tenants Monday night, and none of them had insurance.

“It takes something like this to get people to wake up,” he said.

In general comments, Fargo firefighters have responded to at least four balcony fires in the past month, Schuh said. All four of the fires were related to discarded smoking materials, he said.

The cultural shift in people smoking outside because of secondhand smoke concerns has resulted in more people tossing smoldering cigarette butts into unsafe containers, such as coffee cans that once were made of metal but now are flammable plastic, he said.

Propane grills – but not charcoal grills – are allowed on apartment balconies in Fargo, Schuh said, adding he personally hasn’t been to a grill fire that spread to the entire building.