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Published October 13 2010

APARTMENT FIRE: Recovery begins; fire cause still unknown

Apartment tenants began picking up the charred and soaked pieces of their lives Tuesday as fire investigators tried to pinpoint what sparked a Monday blaze that displaced 150 people from the Galleria On 42nd building in south Fargo.

Investigators were still trying to determine the origin and cause of the fire, but Fargo Assistant Fire Chief Larry Schuh said it appeared to have started on a first-floor balcony in the center of the three-story building at 3700 42nd St. S.

There were grills and cigarette butt cans on more than one balcony, but it’s unknown whether any of them was responsible for the fire, Fire Marshal Norm Scott said.

Investigators were reviewing amateur video of the fire’s early stages and interviewing residents as they returned to retrieve their belongings, he said.

The American Red Cross opened more than 50 client cases for displaced residents seeking food, clothing, medical items and mental health counseling. Most residents had found places to stay with family and friends. Those who need assistance were asked to call (701) 364-1800.

“This is an extremely devastating fire, one of the largest I have seen in recent history,” Red Cross spokeswoman Shellie Simonson Ulven said in a news release.

Schuh 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.

When the roof collapsed onto the third floor, it damaged pipes feeding the sprinkler system, making it less effective, said Fargo Fire Department spokesman Jesse Schmidt.

No tenants were injured in the blaze. One firefighter sustained a knee injury from a pry bar, Schmidt said. Two firefighters who became trapped during the blaze were rescued and rejoined the firefight.

Schmidt asked tenants who were missing pets to call the fire department. Schuh said four cats and one bird were found dead.

Heather Clyde, shelter manager at the F-M Humane Society, said seven pets spent the night at boarding facilities after the fire, either because their owners didn’t know where they were or couldn’t take them into their temporary housing situation.

By Tuesday afternoon, all rescued pets were reunited with their owners, but at least two cats were unaccounted for in the apartment building, Clyde said.

Inside the building, water dripped from sagging ceiling tiles and fire alarms beeped to warn of their dwindling battery power. Water pooled on floors and bubbling paint scarred the walls of some first-floor apartment units near the middle of the building.

The second floor suffered more severe damage, as pink cellulose insulation littered the furniture and floors in some units, fallout from ceilings being ripped down to reach the fire.

The building is owned by a group of investors in the Twin Cities. Dan Hollwegner, vice president of operations for Investors Management & Marketing of Minot, N.D., which manages the building, said an insurance adjuster plans to look at the building today and recommend whether to rebuild.

“It looks like extensive damage in the top portion,” Hollwegner said.

Fargo firefighters have responded to at least four balcony fires in the past month, all caused by discarded smoking materials, Assistant Fire Chief Larry Schuh said, clarifying that he wasn’t suggesting that’s what started Monday’s fire.

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.

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

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

He urged tenants to buy insurance and be more careful with smoking and grilling materials.

“This could happen again if people really don’t take the time to think about what they’re doing,” he said.

Galleria On 42nd fire by the numbers

150: Tenants displaced

150: Firefighters involved in firefight (estimate)

62: Apartment units

60: Pieces of apparatus involved, including fire trucks, emergency medical services and law enforcement (estimate)

50+: Red Cross cases opened to provide immediate basic needs to residents

5: Alarms, triggering full callback of Fargo firefighters

3: Ladder trucks (two from Fargo, one from Moorhead)

3: Minutes it took Fargo firefighters to respond to blaze

Relief efforts set up for victims of Fargo fire

In the aftermath of Monday’s fire at the Galleria On 42nd apartment complex in Fargo, relief and recovery efforts have been established to help about 150 people displaced by the blaze.

Donations of clothing, household goods, furniture, hygiene products and children’s items will be accepted at the Shepherd of the Prairie Church, 6151 25th St. S., Fargo.

The public can drop off donated items between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. Volunteers to staff the donation site and organize items are also needed. Call (701) 235-5711 for more information.

The United Way of Cass-Clay has established a long-term recovery fund for fire victims.

The fund is designed to address unmet needs remaining after insurance claims have been processed. Unmet needs will be verified by case managers specializing in disaster recovery. Funds will be distributed using a needs-based assessment process.

There are three ways people can give to the recovery fund:

- Online: Log on to the www.unitedwaycassclay.org website and click on the “Donate Now” link.

- Phone: Call (701) 237-5050 to donate with a credit card.

- Mail: Send checks to United Way of Cass-Clay, PO Box 1609, Fargo, ND 58103-1609. Make checks payable to United Way of Cass-Clay and indicate “42nd Street Apartment Fire” in the memo.

The United Way will collaborate with Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota’s Lutheran Disaster Response and North Dakota State University’s Department of Emergency Management to manage funds and distribute as needed.

Fargo U-Haul offering free storage for victims

U-Haul of Fargo is offering 30 days of free storage to residents affected by the fire.

People needing boxes can take advantage of the U-Haul “Take a Box, Leave a Box Program.” The company encourages anyone who has reusable boxes to drop them off at U-Haul locations to allow others to reuse the box, free of charge, instead of throwing the reusable boxes into a recycling bin.

Residents needing more information about the 30-day-free self-storage assistance program should contact U-Haul Moving and Storage, 1436 Main Ave., Fargo. Call (701) 293-5256 for more information.

Forum staff reports

Forum reporter Amy Dalrymple contributed to this article

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528