Fire fighters were thinking of Thanksgiving dinner when the alarm came in; but this fire would not be brought under control until 12 hours later. Fire spread would have been different if the demolition site had guards on duty—and sprinklers.

The costliest fire in the history of Minneapolis burned through nearly an entire business block in the heart of the city’s major shopping district Thanksgiving night.

Damage resulting from the 12-hour fire could exceed $90 million, according to Fire Chief Clarence Nimmerfroh. He added that an operating sprinkler system might have helped keep the loss around $ 10 million.

“The fire might have been prevented,” he added, “if security guards had been on duty at the demolition site where the fire began.”

The recently vacated multistory, blocklong Donaldsons department store on fashionable Nicollet Mall between Sixth and Seventh Sts. was being torn down. Two juvenile boys, who reportedly crawled through a hole on the Sixth St. side of a wooden slat snow fence surrounding the premises, were charged a month later with starting the fire in the unguarded demolition site.

After playing in the empty building awhile, the two boys, 12 and 13 years old, found some matches and a butane torch, according to tire department and police arson investigators. Eventually, they said, the youths ignited a flammable liquid, then left the demolition site the way they entered.

The Donaldsons building demolition project began earlier in the week with removal of the outside walls for about 150 feet along Sixth St. and 150 feet on Nicollet. Wooden beams, boards and other combustible debris were piled about two stories high and 30 feet back along the demolished wall lines. Six floors of open, exposed former shopping area and interior walls rose behind the large pile of rubble and butted up against the Northwestern National Bank building (there was no alley). An extensive basement was located under the demolition site.

About one hour after the first alarm, looking at the Northwestern Bank Building, with fire already on several floors. Fire fighters prepare to raise a water tower.

Color photos by the author

Fire spread rapidly from the demolition site to the abutting 16-story Northwestern National Bank building that occupied the other half of the block between Sixth and Seventh on Marquette Ave. Flames apparently entered rear area windows of the unsprinklered bank building on upper stories and raced through several floors in a matter of minutes. Before long, the upper 11 floors of the structure became involved.

Fortunately, there were no serious injuries and the historic Curtiss JN-3C “Jenny,” the first plane owned by pioneer aviator Charles Lindbergh and which was on temporary display in the bank’s lobby area, was saved. Money and other valuables stored in vaults on the bank’s lower levels were not harmed; major bank computer operations were in another building four blocks away.

The first alarm came in at 5:06 p.m., when witnesses in the area reported seeing open flame in the rear of the second-floor level of the six-story demolition site on the Sixth St. side.

Engine 10 and Ladder 1, the first-due companies stationed three and a half blocks away, left the start of Thanksgiving dinners and arrived on the scene at 5:08. They were followed immediately by Battalion Chief Floyd Logstrom and the rest of the initial assignment: Engines 1 and 6 and Ladder 11 — all of which set up at or near the corner of Sixth and Nicollet.

The arriving companies found what appeared to be a moderate fire that was centered on the interior side of the debris pile. Engine 10’s Captain Bill Paget radioed there was a fire on two or three floors and that Engine 10 was laying a line. But the clean burning flames without visible smoke grew exceptionally fast with amazing intensity—like a dry Christmas tree-doubling in size every 30 seconds.

4000 gpm without effect

The three new 1982 pumpers used their preconnected deck-mounted monitor nozzles with 1 1/2 and 3-inch tips, but the heavy straight streams could not hit the seat of the fire on the interior side of the pile. Working rapidly. Ladder 1 (fed by Engine 1) set up a water tower in less than two minutes to get over the top of the pile to the fire. But by then, the flames were six stories high and spreading throughout the open steel frame and wooden joist building. The three engines and Ladder 1 water tower were each applying their master streams at more than 1000 gpm without effect.

“All this water was turning to steam before it hit the fire due to the intensity of the flames,” said Captain John Scheiderich of Ladder 1.

Meanwhile, Logstrom had parked a block away and rushed down Nicollet toward Sixth, protecting his face from the heat with his helmet. At first he thought it might be a big bonfire in the debris pile, but as soon as he saw flames in the open building he radioed for a second alarm. It was 5:13 and he hadn’t reached Sixth St.

One of his first instructions, he said, was to have Engine 6 and Ladder 11 set up a water tower at their positions on Nicollet near Sixth to prevent the fire from spreading through a fire wall into another larger eight-story section of the Donaldsons building that was not yet being torn down. He also sent a crew in to check for smoke and none was found at that time.

Although the outside temperature was 32 degrees F, radiant heat from the fire became intense. Engine 1 and Ladder 1 turned their master streams to the side of the J.C. Penney department store across Sixth St. to prevent that six-story structure from igniting. The Engine 1 crew took fire fighting equipment into the store and ultimately to the roof, while the driver used a 1 1/2-inch line to cool all the fire apparatus positioned at Sixth and Nicollet and also some of the fire fighters. Decorative glass street lights on the corner began to melt, and tiller windows and a light on Ladder 1 cracked from heat stress.

Fire seen in upper window

While standing on Sixth St. and helping with the Ladder 1 water tower, Fire Fighter Gabriel Saice reported that he saw fire in an upper window of the Northwestern National Bank building. At this time, 5:19, Logstrom radioed for a third alarm.

Fire investigators believe the fire had swept over a rear parapet at the sixth floor level of the Northwestern Bank building, and into an interior court that rose from the sixth floor. This open court apparently acted like a chimney, venting heat and flames up over the roof of the bank building. Tempered glass windows facing the court failed under intense heat stress. From the interior windows, fire seemed to have flashed across the combustible contents of the unsprinklered bank offices to the Sixth St. windows, and also to the Marquette Ave. windows (this would explain how the fire traveled so far so fast). Later the bank building’s rear wire mesh glass windows, designed to withstand up to 2000 degrees melted into a ball from impinging demolition-site flames. (Evidence indicates interior temperatures reached 2600 degrees F.) A 12th floor skyway across the open court also may have provided a fire entry point to the top floors.

Logstrom said that when he put in the third alarm it looked like the fire was in several windows on about the 10th floor of the bank building, which was of type I construction. He proceeded into the bank with the second-alarm companies to start interior fire fighting operations on the 10th floor. Because there was smoke in the elevator shafts, they started up the stairway and found paint peeling on upper fire doors in the stairwells due to interior heat.

At 5:31 Assistant Fire Chief Allan Wold arrived. He called a foufth alarm at 5:33, when he saw that fire had spread to the 11th floor. He called for a fifth alarm (highest used) at 5:35, when he observed possible fire on the 15th floor. The five alarms brought 24 pieces of fire apparatus and 90 fire fighters (of 116 on duty) to the scene.

Called from off duty

Additional equipment was summoned as needed and a radio-television announcement was made, calling all available Minneapolis fire fighters to duty. More than 150 responded — many from Thanksgiving meals. By mutual-aid agreement, the St. Paul Fire Department sent two engines, one ladder truck and 12 fire fighters to stand by at unmanned Minneapolis fire stations. Five suburban fire departments offered to cover parts of Minneapolis near their areas. A visiting fire fighter from Denver and one from Wyoming reported to the scene, volunteering their services, and another visiting fire fighter from Colorado Springs telephoned to offer his assistance.

Thick smokes obscures the demolition site around 9 p.m.

Even before the fourth and fifth alarms, the demolition area fire was so big and bright it reflected off the sides of many downtown buildings and easily could be seen miles away in St. Paul and from several Twin City suburbs. Hundreds of spectators were attracted to the scene.

At about 5:45, fire erupted on the sixth and seventh floors – under the fire fighters who had gone to the 10th floor. Concerned for their safety, Wold stopped all internal fire fighting operations and ordered an evacuation of the bank building. When he came out, Logstrom saw fire in several upper floors on Sixth St., and flames were breaking through many 10th floor windows on the Marquette side.

“It was incredible,” he said, “I couldn’t believe this was happening. It was like a scene right out of the Towering Inferno’ movie.”

Wall crumbled

Window glass was crashing into the street from the high fire floors and 26pound weights also fell, hitting the ground like bombs. The remainder of the outside wall of the Donaldsons building, weak and unsupported, crumbled into a heap, covering Sixth St. with rubble and breaking display windows on the J. C. Penney store. Hot, burning debris showered down on nearby buildings.

“It was an extremely dangerous situation,” explained Wold, who directed fireground operations in the absence of Chief Nimmerfroh, who was in San Francisco for Thanksgiving. “The fire was out of control everywhere, and we were afraid it might spread to other nearby buildings ‘

Good fortune stepped in at this time. The wind, which had been blowing from the south at 12 miles an hour when the fire began, dropped to 7 mph by 6 p.m. and dropped further to about 5 mph by 7 p.m. Coming when it did, the drop in wind speed was a critical factor in helping to keep the fire contained to the Donaldsons and bank buildings, according to Wold.

How the fire spread so fast: the demolition site was open on several floors above a mountain of loose debris—Minneapolis Fire Department photo

Nevertheless, smoke got into the 52story IDS Tower that occupies the block to the south, between Seventh and Eighth, Nicollet and Marquette, forcing its beautiful Crystal Court lobby area to be closed by 6:30. Also closed was the 19-floor Marquette Inn, which is part of the IDS block, and about 100 guests were evacuated to another hotel for the night. During the fire, 67 windows on the Seventh St. side of the Marquette Inn were damaged and had to be replaced.

Fire companies positioned hose lines and a deluge nozzle on the roof of the Marquette Inn so they could hit the upper floors of the fire block across Seventh St. Another monitor nozzle was placed on the IDS end of a second-floor enclosed skyway leading to the Donaldsons building, and the glass walls of the skyway were broken to prevent smoke and heat buildup. Another monitor nozzle was put on the roof of the 17-story Cargill building, and it shot water across Marquette Ave. into the burning windows of the bank building.

Officers of the Northwestern National Bank, one of the two largest banking operations in Minnesota (assets $15 billion), gathered in office space the bank had been leasing on the 12th floor of the Cargill building and began to plan their strategy while fire fighters battled the fire across the street.

A total of seven water towers were in operation at any one time —positioned near the four corners of the block. Hose 1 and Hose 10, with turret nozzles, were used and the command post van was stationed at Sixth and Marquette.

By 8 p.m., there was a dramatic wind shift. It began to blow from the north at 10 mph. Flames from the demolition site that had been blowing away from the larger, eight-story Donaldsons building that awaited removal, started to blow toward the vacant structure. Fire soon broke out inside and spread as the wind speed increased.

A staging and supply area controlled by Deputy Chief Larry Moskalik had been established near the command post. There, call-back manpower was divided into fire companies and fire teams. Hose bundles, nozzles and air tanks were assembled. Shortly before 8 p.m. the teams of fire fighters reentered the bank’s Sixth St. entrance to renew the interior attack. They were directed by Deputy Chiefs Richard Johnson and Noel Lutsy, plus several battalion chiefs, including Logstrom.

Logstrom said they started on the Sixth St. side of the sixth floor with several lines and slowly made their way up to the 16th floor on that side, extinguishing the fire in an orderly progression. As more fire fighters and lines became available, they were put into service. Another interior attack was then started from the Seventh St. side in the same manner, and fire fighters covered a computer operation on the fourth floor to prevent any further damage.

Both fire department hose lines and house lines were used, according to Logstrom, who said they were connected to three 6-inch risers, one on each side of the building and one in the center stairway area. With engines pumping into the building standpipes, there was an adequate supply of water, he explained.

Overall, it was slow going, Logstrom reported. Air masks were fogging up and breathing was difficult without them. Frequent change of air bottles was necessary, and new bottles had to be carried up to the fire floors via stairways. (Almost every air bottle in the city was used and many were refilled several times, with the salvage truck being used to transport the bottles to Station 5 for refilling.) Lugging fire hose up the stairs and pulling it in the dark from office to office – around tables, chairs, desks, file cabinets, cubicles and fallen debris – was a problem. Smoldering file cabinets were hard to put out and it was not unusual for them and other hot spots to flare up again.

On several floors, the interior areas closest to Sixth St. were burned out, so the greatest fire fighting activity was in the center sections. This is where the fire generally was stopped as a result of the interior attack. The Seventh St. side of the building sustained only minor smoke and water damage.

By 11 p.m., the north wind was blowing from Sixth to Seventh at 15 mph and may have contributed to an outbreak of heavy fire on the 13th and 14th floors. By midnight, fire had swept through the vacant eight-story Donaldsons building and flames broke out windows on the Seventh St. side. Water towers and ground monitor nozzles were set up to augment other previously established positions in knot king down the flames.

Under control, 12 hours later

The exterior attack on Donaldsons and the interior attack on the bank building continued through the early morning hours. The fire was declared under control at 4:59 a.m. Friday, nearly 12 hours after the first alarm, but spot fires continued to burn until the last of them was put out later Saturday.

More than 5.5 million gallons of water were pumped by the fire department; in addition, the fire pumps in the IDS and Cargill buildings pumped more water for about 12 hours. An estimated 20,000 feet of fire hose (14,700 feet of 2 1/2-4-inch exterior and 5000 feet of 1 1/2-2-inch interior) was used, along with 850 feet of ladder and 10 monitor nozzles. More than 400 bottles of air were consumed.

There were 24 minor injuries to fire fighters, mostly strains and sprains due to exhaustion from the long hours of fire fighting.

“It s fortunate that the fire happened on a holiday when the bank building was not occupied, because we do not have enough manpower to go through the fire floors of such a large building on an immediate search and rescue,” Wold said. “If the building had been occupied, we likely would have had serious injuries and possibly some deaths.”

The Minneapolis fire fighting equipment was in excellent condition, however, and worked very well. Most of the engines used were 1982 or 1981 models by General Safety of Minnesota on International chassis and diesel engines. All of them pumped for long periods, trouble free. One engine, for example, pumped steadily for nearly 24 hours and was refilled with diesel fuel eight times. The ladder trucks worked well, too; however, some of them iced up in the early hours Friday morning and had to be steam-thawed. Operation of the department’s new monitor nozzles was pleasing to everyone. There was no problem with water supply or pressure.

Fire fighters with SCBA move in to continue the interior attack.

The huge fire loss is strong testimony to the repeated warnings given the city during the past decade by Nimmerfroh, who strongly advocated mandatory sprinkler systems on all high-rise and commercial buildings to help save lives and property.

No immediate action taken

Had there been sprinklers on all floors, when the windows in the bank popped from the heat it would have triggered the sprinklers and they would have formed a wall of water,” Nimmerfroh told a special session of the city council after the fire. But no immediate action was taken by the council to require retrofitting of pre-1974 buildings with sprinkler systems.

A similar proposal, stemming from the MCM hotel fire, got no further than public hearings in I981 – largely because of cost factors and voluntary changes in some downtown buildings.

Sol Jacobs, director of the city building inspection department, said there should have been a steel chain link fence put up around the Donaldsons demolition site to keep people away, and the wrecking company should have had security guards. “They assured us the area would be fenced in and that they would provide security guards as the need arose,” Jacobs explained. “We should have insisted that they have someone there all the time. We just assumed they would have.”

Clifford Trudeau, president of the Minnesota Lumber and Wrecking Co., declined to answer questions about security for the demolition site.

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