Ashes, tears and questions

Officials probe fatal Dinkytown house fireClose-knit friends face a sudden tragedy

I Investigators continued searching Sunday for the cause of a fire that killed three University students Saturday morning.

Second-year students Elizabeth Wencl, 20; Amanda Speckien, 19; and Brian Heiden, 19, died in the blaze early Saturday morning in their duplex at 827 15th Ave. S.E.

City Council member Paul Zerby, who represents the area, said he will “seize the urgency” created by the deaths to push for action on rental property violations in a meeting with city inspection officials Monday.

“I’d like to mobilize what we have to do a sweep-through of the area of Marcy-Holmes, Dinkytown and Como” to crack down on code violations, Zerby said Sunday.

University President Bob Bruininks said in the wake of the deaths, the University was considering removing frequently cited landlords from the property listing at the University housing office.

“If landlords are found to be cited frequently, or if they’re a frequent cause of student complaints, I frankly don’t think they should be listed,” Bruininks said.

Currently, all properties licensed and approved by the city are listed.

On Sunday, authorities would not release information about specific code violations for the 15th Avenue residence.

Hennepin County medical examiners said the students died of smoke inhalation.

Capt. Dennis Mack of the Minneapolis Fire Department – whose team recovered the bodies – said all three were found on the floor next to their beds with minor burns. Wencl and Speckien were found upstairs. Heiden was found on the first floor.

Tim Thomas, the Minneapolis fire investigator on the case, said that while officials do not suspect arson at this point, information on the fire’s cause will not be available for up to a week.

Jim Moore, who escaped from the adjacent duplex at 825 15th Ave. S.E., said fire officials, including those from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, arrived almost immediately.

Thomas said the ATF was called because of the scope of the investigation.

One man escaped through a second-story window. Moore, who called 911, and girlfriend Lisa McDougal also escaped.

Moore said he woke up to an intense heat followed by a loud explosion.

Thomas said he knew nothing of an explosion.

McDougal was staying with Moore 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 said she watched one man jump from the 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.”

Capt. Tom Thornberg Minneapolis Fire Station 19 said was the first crew on the scene. He said when they arrived at 4:51 a.m., the house was completely engulfed.

“When we got there it looked like a bomb,” Thornberg said, adding that old houses such as the duplex tend to burn faster.

He said one smoke alarm was going off in the basement, but he was unsure if any were functioning on the other floors.

Questionable condition

The apartment – owned by Eischens Management under Jim Eischens – had problems, said neighbors and former tenants.

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.”

The Minnesota Daily reported in May that since 1996, Eischens Management was cited 667 times for housing violations on 36 properties.

Brian Heiden’s father Richard said they found a gas leak on the property when they moved in Sept. 1.

“There was a problem with a gas leak that we had fixed when we were moving him in,” he said.

He also said the rest of the duplex was not in good condition.

“There was also a hole in the second floor that looked like a dresser went through it,” he said.

University Student Legal Services legal assistant 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.”

Calls to both Jim and Patrick Eischens were not returned Sunday. An individual who answered the phone at Eischens Management on Saturday also declined to comment.

Fifth-year University student Mike Neiman lived in the duplex from June 1, 2002, until Jan. 25 and said he had many problems, including smelling gas in the kitchen and basement, faulty electrical wiring, smoke detectors that did not work, broken windows, a broken porch and a water heater that exploded in the basement.

He also said a hole was punched through the second floor by walking on it. The hole was not repaired.

Neiman said Jim Eischens fixed the smoke alarms and completely rewired the kitchen while he lived there but left the porch “really unkempt” and in disrepair.

“He never seemed like he really cared” about his tenants, Neiman said. “We had a bad relationship (with Eischens). We were not happy with our living arrangements, and they were not as we expected them to be.”

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.

Neiman said the only way out of the house was through two front doors, which both went through the porch. He added that the staircase was the only exit, other than the windows, from the upstairs rooms.

Boysen 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 and pounded on the doors.

Zerby said violations on the Dinkytown property, as well as those against Eischens, would be “pursued very diligently” by police and fire officials investigating the case.

When Dustin Carlson’s friends went to the Minnesota Wild game Friday, it seemed like a typical night.

But when he went to visit them the next day, he found only the charred shell of their duplex.

Carlson came face-to-face with a nightmare when he discovered three of his friends were killed in the fire Saturday morning at 827 15th Ave. S.E.

“This isn’t supposed to happen,” Carlson said. “It’s something you can’t be ready for, especially not to these people.”

Second-year University students Elizabeth Wencl, 20; Amanda Speckien, 19; and Brian Heiden, 19, were killed. Two other residents and a visitor managed to escape.

Carlson said his girlfriend, who was in Texas at the time of the fire, lived at the residence along with six other friends.

He stopped by the duplex around noon Saturday to surprise her by leaving her favorite ice cream in the freezer and discovered what had happened.

He said he was still in shock Saturday afternoon.

“We lived in Bailey Hall together, and there’s not much of a night life in St. Paul,” Carlson said. “We spent every minute together last year.”

Carlson also said he and Heiden played on a softball league together in Carlson’s hometown.

Other bewildered friends gathered outside the building’s remains Saturday afternoon but would not talk to reporters.

Carlson said after attending the Wild game Friday night, the group went to a friend’s house in Hudson, Wis., returned to the duplex around 2:30 a.m. and went to sleep.

Carlson said seven students lived in the duplex.

Ashley Johnson, a second-year social science student and high school friend of Heiden, knew all three of the fire’s victims. She came Sunday bearing one bouquet of flowers for each of her friends.

She also brought a bright yellow T-shirt with “Angel Pride” screen-printed on the front and Heiden’s high school senior quote written below it in black marker: “You only live once – but if you lived like me, you only need one.”

Johnson graduated with Heiden from St. Catherine’s High School in 2002. She met Wencl and Speckien last year in Bailey Hall.

“It’s still hard for me to grasp,” Johnson said, “even after coming to the house.”

The Owatonna Senior High School cheerleaders left a note and a bouquet of flowers for Wencl, a former Owatonna cheerleader.

Psychologist and University Counseling and Consulting Services representative Robert Seybold was also at the house Sunday to help students cope with the situation.

He asked visitors who approached the house if they knew the students and handed out information on grief, loss and how to help someone who is grieving.

He also distributed his card for students if they needed to talk.

At a press conference Saturday afternoon, Robert Jones, University vice president and vice provost for faculty and academic programs, said the University knew little about the incident but was deeply concerned.

“We’re very saddened when we lose students,” he said. “It’s very disturbing for the University as a whole.”

Jones said that in his 25 years at the University, there has never been a residential fire that killed University students, and he said he was unaware of any before his time.

Carlson and three friends with him Saturday said the deaths would leave a hole in their group.

“They were great people and really good friends,” Carlson said. “You could call them for anything.”

He said memorials for students are being planned.

-Chelsie Hanstad contributed to this report.

Back to top