House fire kills 3 students

A fire killed second-year University students Elizabeth Wencl, 19, Amanda Speckien, 19, and Brian Heiden, 20, at 4:51 a.m. Saturday in their duplex at 827 University Ave S.E.

Hennepin County medical examiners said Heiden and Wencl died of smoke inhalation, but an autopsy report for Speckien was still pending Saturday night.

Two other residents and a visitor escaped from the duplex.

Jim Moore, who lives at 825 15th Ave. S.E. – an apartment in the same structure as the burned duplex – called the fire department.

Moore said he was in bed when he woke up to, intense heat, followed by a loud explosion.

He said fire officials, including those from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were on the scene almost immediately.

Minneapolis police Lt. Bill Whisney said police were still investigating the cause of the fire Saturday, and officials from the St. Paul division of the ATF were unavailable for comment Saturday.

Moore’s girlfriend, Lisa McDougal, was staying with him that night and said she heard an explosion with a noise she said sounded like a gas leak.

“I heard a ‘woosh,'” as the house exploded, McDougal said. “It seemed like a gas leak.”

She also said she watched one man escape through a second story window.

“I was screaming to him, ‘jump, jump, jump.’ The flames were right behind him,” McDougal said. “Then the fire exploded through the window. He was an inch away from his life.”

Neighbor Rick Krueger said he heard the fire as he was preparing for bed and rushed outside to help.

“I heard ‘boom’ Ö You can’t mistake that sound,” Krueger said. “It was so dark outside the fire was so bright Ö it’s a nightmare. It’s just unbelievable how fast it went down.”

Police and fire officials would not comment on the cause of the fire, but McDougal said the tenants found a gas leak on the property when they moved in Sept. 1.

“They smelled gas in September, and (one tenant’s) mom didn’t even want her to live there,” McDougal said, adding the mother was also upset by the condition of the duplex.

McDougal said the tenants called Minnegasco, which found and repaired a gas leak.

Moore has lived in the apartment for four years, and friend and neighbor Stanley Masoner said both he and Moore questioned the condition of the house.

“I heard there weren’t smoke alarms in there,” Masoner said. “There’s one in Jim’s apartment, but it didn’t work. It never worked.”

Other neighbors said there were two smoke alarms in the duplex, but at least one was dismantled by the tenants Friday after it went off while they were cooking a pizza.

The property – owned by Eischens Management – had other problems as well, Masoner said. He said there were numerous other issues and said the landlord was “notorious for problems.”

Both 827 and 825 15th Ave. S.E. are listed under Patrick Eischens, owned by Eischens Management.

An individual who answered the phone at Eischens Management on Saturday declined to comment, and messages left for Patrick and Jim Eischens – who owns the company – were not returned.

University Legal Services attorney Barb Boysen said her office has processed numerous complaints against Eischens Management.

“We have a lot of complaints involving housing issues in our office,” Boysen said. “Of those that we deal with Ö Jim Eischens is probably the most prominent name.”

She said her office processed a fire complaint at a different Eischens property in July.

“I know that there were several tenants in (another Eischens) property who had to move out because of a fire,” Boysen said. “They commented to me at the time that there were no functioning fire detectors in the building.”

Boysen said the tenants in that case were awakened by people who saw the smoke pounding on the doors.

The tenants came to an agreement terminating the contract with Eischens and moved to a different location.