Downtown East resident Tom Labanowski called his upstairs neighbor Roberta “Bobbi” Wicka a hero just hours after their building was gutted by a mid-morning fire on Wednesday, Feb. 20.
Sometime between 10 and 10:30 a.m., Wicka woke Labanowski from a sound sleep, he said, as a fire took hold in the upper floors of 1201 Washington Ave. S., home to Maxwell’s bar and restaurant and three upstairs tenants. No one was injured, but the fire appears to have destroyed the inside of the 113-year-old building, which also houses Scandia Furniture, next door at 1203 Washington Ave. S.
“Bobbi saved our lives,” Labanowski said, smoking a cigarette to calm his nerves at Bullwinkle’s Saloon, 1429 Washington Ave. S., where he is general manager. “I’m a sound sleeper, and I’m sure she pounded on the door for a couple of minutes trying to get me to wake up. If she hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here talking to you right now.”
Labanowski and a third tenant grabbed fire extinguishers while Wicka went downstairs to Maxwell’s “to make sure everybody got out safe,” said Labanowski. The two tenants found a fire door, which led to a fire escape at the rear of the building, “glowing and crackling,” he said. Hearing fire trucks approaching, the two men cleared some bikes out of the way, to make way for firefighters, then fled down the stairs and out the front of the building as firefighters “screamed at us to get out.”
Outside, Labanowski carried the shoeless Wicka across the street. She suffered an asthma attack, he said — not from smoke inhalation but from the exertion of “sprinting around, making sure everybody got out.
“She was amazing,” he said.
The escape took only 60 seconds, Labanowski estimated, and “within seconds” of exiting the building, “flames had engulfed the entire top floor,” he said.
Labanowski was able to grab a few valuable items — a bag with his computer and paychecks and tips from the last month, he said. His neighbors, also bartenders, were not so lucky, he feared. “They both had cash that’s going to be gone,” he said. He said he thinks he has fire insurance, but, still shaky from the ordeal, he was just grateful that no one was hurt. “We lost everything,” he said. “I’m lucky to be alive.” He did note that one tenant lost a cat in the fire.
While Labanowski, Wicka and a handful of Maxwell’s employees were at Bullwinkle’s, still reeling from the ordeal, the ruined building was encased in ice from firefighter’s hoses. Two blocks of Washington Avenue were closed as firefighters battled the blaze. A Metro Transit “rescue bus” was parked nearby — a warm refuge for soaked firefighters from the near-zero-degree cold.
As multiple arcs of water crashed into the building from above and below, Alex Jackson of the Minneapolis Fire Department told reporters that, while no one had been injured by the fire, the cold outside and weakened building inside posed a threat to his fellow firefighters. It was uncertain how the building supports, with the fire and added weight of all the water, would hold. Meanwhile, firefighters came out of the building wet, Jackson said, and the water froze to them as quickly as it did to the building. While the rescue bus awaited, “they like to stay at their posts,” he said of his dedicated colleagues.
Fire department spokesman Sean McKenna told the StarTribune that the fire had started in a third-floor storage area, and Jackson confirmed that part of the back of the building had collapsed. By 1:30, the fire was out, said an exhausted-looking firefighter, stopping to use the restroom at Grumpy’s Bar and Grill, down the block at 1111 Washington Ave. S. “We’re almost done,” he told bartender Ty Lohr. “Made a mess.”
Washington Avenue reopened to traffic soon after.
Back at Bullwinkle’s, Labanowski didn’t speculate about how the fire had started. He said the owners — Maxwell Properties, LLC, according to Hennepin County property tax records — had brought in carbon-monoxide detectors just within the last month. “I always felt safe,” he said. “It was an old building, but they kept it up.”
Just three hours after the fire began, Labanowski said he was already trying to find work for the half-dozen Maxwell’s employees who, like him, had sought refuge at Bullwinkle’s. “They’ve fed us,” he said of the now-ruined restaurant’s employees. He hoped to be able to take on two or three of them at Bullwinkle’s, he said, as he finished his cigarette and headed back into the crowded bar, with still-obvious nerves to calm.
“I’m still shaky,” he said. “I’m in shock.”