Construction-site blaze disrupts classes, trafic

Mike Wereschagin

A fire broke out on the seventh floor of Owre Hall on Tuesday in the construction site for the Molecular and Cellular Biology building on Washington Avenue.
The fire spread quickly through nearly half the floor despite efforts by construction crew to extinguish it. Firefighters worked for about an hour to put out the blaze.
Justin Erickson, a construction worker with Carl Bolander and Sons Demolition, said he moved a piece of debris and was greeted by a tongue of flame.
“The next thing I knew, smoke started coming out all over the place,” Erickson said.
No injuries were reported, said Judson Freed, assistant director of the University’s Department of Emergency Management. He said the cause of the fire is still under investigation, adding it might be construction-related.
Two Minneapolis Fire Department firetrucks and two University Police squad cars diverted traffic along Washington Avenue Southeast in the westbound lane for 15 minutes as a result of the fire.
James Harris, another worker with the demolition crew, began using bricks and pieces of wood to shatter the windows in an effort to clear the air when the fire broke out.
“The smoke became overwhelming,” Harris said. “We had to get some cross-ventilation in there.”
Owre Hall, located next to Moos Tower on the corner of Church and Delaware streets, has been under construction since August in preparation for the construction of the new biology building.
Harris said it soon became obvious to the crew that they were not going to be able to put out the flames on their own.
J.R. Klepp, a Minneapolis firefighter, said he was one of the first on the scene. He said the Owre Hall fire was reported to the fire department at 1:15 p.m.
Jim Rodgers, deputy chief of the Minneapolis Fire Department, said the ongoing construction hampered the firefighters’ ability to reach the fire.
Although the blaze was relatively small, the building’s seventh floor was difficult to access, forcing firefighters to use the truck’s platform ladder to reach the fire, Rodgers said.
“The reason the fire spread like it did was because the area is strewn with timber and other debris,” Rodgers said.
Authorities first evacuated Jackson Hall, a building connected to the west side of Owre Hall. Diane Anderson and Amy Wagner, seniors majoring in mortuary science, had a class in the building when the fire started.
“Somebody smelled smoke,” Wagner said. “And it just got stronger and stronger. Then I looked out the window and saw fire engines pulling up.”
“It didn’t really dawn on me,” Anderson said. “The fire alarms never went off. They’ve been going off almost constantly since school started because of all this construction. The littlest thing would set them off. Now when we actually have a real fire, nothing happens.”
Students, staff and faculty cleared out of Jackson Hall by 1:30 p.m.
Eric Kruse, vice president of University Services, said it was unclear at this point how much the fire would cost the University.

— Staff Reporter Tammy J. Oseid contributed to this report

Mike Wereschagin welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612)627-4070 ex.3226.