‘I’ve never seen anything like this’

Published 1:19 pm Saturday, January 17, 2009

The brutal winter weather took its toll on everyone at the downtown fire scene in Austin when the sun went down and night took over Thursday.

Fortunately, the Mower County Chapter of the American Red Cross was there to help.

Wilson and other fire chiefs at the scene credited the Red Cross with helping emergency services personnel stay healthy.

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“We opened our first warming center at 4 p.m. shortly after the fire broke out and we had volunteers downtown overnight and more volunteers working shifts as long as the firefighters were there Friday,” said Aaron Stewart, emergency program coordinator for the Red Cross chapter.

The owners of Novedades Cristal in the former Nemitz’s tobacco store building allowed the Red Cross to use the store as a warming center for firefighters.

With more emergency services personnel on the scene and needing respite from their work and the weather, more space was needed.

The site of the warming center was moved to the Granle’s Custom Framing and Design Gallery at the corner of North Main Street and Fourth Avenue.

Steve Davis, owner of Steve’s Pizza, allowed emergency services crews to use the building he now owns and plans to move his restaurant business into in March.

The upstairs portion of the building became the permanent warming center for the Red Cross throughout the duration of fire emergency.

“We served the firefighters and police officers who came into the center coffee, hot chocolate and juice as well as snacks, sandwiches and meals,” Stewart said. “We were busy.”

Stewart praised the Red Cross volunteers and said the emergency services personnel expressed their appreciation.

Two blocks of North Main Street from Second to Fourth Avenue were blocked to traffic.

Locating the warming center at the Granle/Davis building in close proximity to the fire allowed an unimpeded path to the respite from the severe winter weather.

Also, the Red Cross chapter found temporary shelter for occupants of an apartment above one of the street-level stores where the fire is said to have originated.

All other stores’ employees or customers were evaluated to safety.

No injuries among them were reported.

Austin Mayor Tom Stiehm learned of the fire from a telephone call to the mayor and other city officials attending a League of Minnesota Cities rally in St. Paul last Thursday.

The mayor, a retired Austin police detective, said, “I have my suspicions about how the fire started, because it appears to have spread so quickly, according to the fire chief and other sources.”

No firm word on the cause of origin has been released by officials.

The Austin fire chief and state fire marshal have not speculated on the cause of the fire nor estimated property damages as of press time.

Stiehm said city officials will have to meet with the downtown business community to discuss the future of the fire-damaged area.

“The fire chief and his firefighters did a great job under very difficult circumstances,” Stiehm said.

Sandy Forstner, executive director of the Austin Area Chamber of Commerce, called the fire a “tragic loss.”

In his lifetime as a former newspaper journalist and now Chamber director, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Forstner and the Chamber staff watched the fire burn out of control from their office location in the Town Center building across North Main Street from the source of the blaze.

He said there will have to meetings to discuss the future of the downtown block.

“This was a tragic loss that took out a good share of the downtown business real estate,” he said.

Also looking ahead for solutions is Sarah Douty, coordinator of the Austin Main Street Project, which has been leading the renovation and revitalization of downtown properties.

Douty discovered the fire, when, “I smelled smoke in my office,” she said.

Her office is located in the Courtyard Apartments building three blocks east of the fire’s origin. A strong wind blew flames and smoke eastward after the fire broke out.

Douty went to the scene and remained there into the evening.

“I think it’s too early to talk about what’s going to be done,” she said Friday. “We’re all still in the recovery stage.”

Douty broke down during a television interview Thursday evening when discussing the city’s loss.

“It’s not just the buildings,” she said of the city’s downtown. “It’s the people, it’s the camaraderie they enjoy with each other. It’s all of that and more.”

Douty also said she hoped Austin Main Street Project will have a role in discussing and planning the future for the 400 block of North Main Street.

“That’s what we do,” she said.