Discarded cigarette is cause of Dania Hall fire

by Max Rust

A discarded cigarette started the fire that torched Dania Hall, a massive community project to renovate the West Bank building and several nearby apartments, Minneapolis police said Wednesday.
“We at this point believe it was an accidental fire,” said Lt. Rick Nelson of the Minneapolis bomb-arson unit.
Despite the neighborhood’s loss, West Bank residents are pulling together to raise the community center from the ashes.
After interviewing residents who noticed someone in the building prior to the fire, police identified the individual suspected of starting it, Nelson said.
When approached by the police, the man admitted to being in the building and to carelessly throwing his cigarette on the building’s second floor. About 45 minutes later, Dania Hall was ablaze, Nelson said.
“Because of the remodeling there, it was well-vented. Once it got started, the air and stuff like that was there … all the ingredients for rapidly spreading fire were there,” said Nelson.
The man has not been charged with any crime, pending a decision by the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. The Attorney’s Office is reviewing the police investigation report.
“To be chargeable, we have to prove that he intended to burn it, and that’s not there,” Nelson said. The suspect was not a “street person,” but someone who was employed and has had temporary residence, he said.
The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is still examining pieces of wood from the fire to see if accelerants — fuels that drive a fire — were used. The bureau is also examining pieces of ash found the night of the fire on the porch of Tim Mungaven, director of the West Bank Community Development Corporation.
For years, Mungaven had helped organize a $2.7 million Dania Hall renovation project. Mungaven, who turned the ash pieces over to the arson department, found them when he was called to the fire.
Nelson said at this point investigators have not found any connection between the ash and the fire.
While the entire West Bank community lost a landmark renovation project in the fire, several people, including first-year University student Kyle Sobanja, lost their homes and belongings.
Sobanja was in his apartment next door to Dania Hall when he smelled smoke. “I looked out the window and huge flames were shooting out,” he said.
Sobanja then called 911 and left his apartment with only his pajamas and his roommate’s guitar. Though friends have given him clothing and his employer has put him up in an apartment for a month, Sobanja said he lost a large amount of photos, poetry, books and other belongings.
Two days later, Sobanja attended a community memorial service for Dania Hall where residents expressed their feelings for the renovation project.
Despite the losses, the community is optimistic about creating a new facility in place of Dania Hall, Mungaven said. Preliminary plans are in the works for developing the site, which could include a history project and a community garden.
“There were a lot of people who came through the grieving process with a great deal of hope for the future and surprisingly positive considering the circumstances,” Mungaven said. “We want to keep building on that.”

Max Rust covers community and agriculture and welcomes comments at [email protected]