As smoke hung in the air in St. Paul’s North End Thursday, a woman sobbed across the street from Stasny’s Food Market. “He was like family,” she said.

That was how beloved butcher Stu Gerr, who split his time between the Twin Cities and Deer River, made people feel. It was the same with the market, an icon in the North End neighborhood for 94 years.

A blaze that raced through the building at Western and Cook avenues early Thursday took Gerr’s life and destroyed the business that the Stasny family ran for four generations.

Stuart Gerr had spent more than 60 years in the meat business, most of it at Capitol City Meats. The Stasny family hired him after the Rice Street business closed in 2010 and many loyal customers followed him.

“(Stu) wanted to be cutting meat at 80 years old,” owner Jim Stasny said of Gerr, who had just turned 77 on Monday. “He said, ‘If I ever die, you better close this shop up and make sure everyone comes to my funeral.’ ”

Authorities continue to investigate the cause of the fire, which about 50 firefighters worked to extinguish over five hours, said St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard. A family who lived in an apartment above the market escaped but lost everything.

Firefighters were called to the blaze at 1:30 a.m., about the time that Stasny said he received an intrusion alert call about glass breaking on the market’s back door.

Shortly thereafter, his wife, Becky, received a call from Gerr, trapped in the burning building, “obviously distraught” and unable to say much. Firefighters found Gerr at the bottom of the basement stairs, which he’d been apparently trying to get up. Gerr died of smoke inhalation, according to the Ramsey County medical examiner’s office.

Working late - or early - was not unusual for Gerr.

“He’s a workaholic. He works late and he’s up early,” said Jim Stasny, still referring to his friend in the present tense on Thursday afternoon, then tearing up. “I think he just nodded off in the break room.”

Gerr had built a home on a lake near Deer River during his time at Capitol City Meats and retired for a year. But, he said in a 2012 interview, “I got bored,” so he got back behind the meat counter.

He still lived with his wife in Deer River, about 200 miles north of St. Paul, and stayed with a son in the Twin Cities when he was working, said Marge Strecker, who was still working part time at Stasny’s after 40 years. She is 80 years old.

Like Strecker, many workers and customers had long histories with Stasny’s Food Market.

“That’s where my parents always went and got their meat when I was a kid,” said Lori Sobczak, who grew up in the neighborhood and still lives there. “My husband always had his deer processed from Stasny’s.” The market was a favorite among deer hunters to process their venison for steaks, sausages and jerky.

When people heard about Thursday’s fire, some initially worried it had struck another longtime family grocery, Kamp’s Food Market, which is about 200 feet away from Stasny’s.

“I always felt like we served the neighborhood together pretty well,” said owner Paul Kamp. “I’m at a little bit of a loss today, thinking I have to go this alone. They’ve always been there; we’ve always been here.”

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Smoke and then a dangerous fire

Firefighters worked to extinguish the fire when they arrived on scene, but it spread into the walls, floors and ceilings. It “was a very stubborn fire,” said Zaccard, the fire marshal.

“The fire was so bad in the basement, it was unsurvivable,” he said. He believed the stairs where Gerr were found were the only way in or out of the basement.

The fire was also a dangerous situation for firefighters - the first floor was weakening and there was concern about it collapsing into the basement while firefighters were working, Zaccard said. Supervisors told them to fight the fire from outside the building, which they did for about 20 minutes before they were allowed to go back in.

After the fire, a city structural engineer and the fire department’s structural collapse team agreed the building was too dangerous for fire investigators to enter to try to determine the fire’s origin and cause, Zaccard said. The building will have to be demolished under the supervision of investigators who will be looking for evidence, he said.

The St. Paul Department of Safety and Inspections had inspected the building on Feb. 29 for its fire certificate of occupancy renewal. The city ordered one repair - that the emergency lighting system by the front door be repaired. A reinspection on April 1 showed it had been fixed, said DSI spokesman Robert Humphrey.

A decade ago, a city inspector found a bed in the building’s basement and ordered it be removed, according to a St. Paul record. Any room used for sleeping is required to have two ways out, Zaccard said.

When the city inspected the building a short time ago, there was no indication that anyone was staying in the basement, Humphrey said.

A butcher who helped others

The North End community is rallying around the people who lost so much on Thursday, and plans are underway for a fundraiser for the family who lived above the market.

Lena Buggs, one of the fundraiser’s organizers, doesn’t know Schmugge or Tietz, but she was motivated to help because she lives in the neighborhood and she knew Stu Gerr as someone who was always helping others.

“He was a staple in the community,” said Buggs, one of the market’s customers. “He was so helpful and so kind and so loving.”

Gerr spent the bulk of his career - 43 years - at Capitol City Meats. When he made the move to Stasny’s, a hand-painted sign in front of the market that said, “Stu from Rice Street is here,” was like a beacon to his former customers.

“Stu brought a lot of business - a lot of neighbors respected him for what he did,” said customer Pete Boet, who knew Gerr from Rice Street and later at Stasny’s. “He helped a lot of people out, if they didn’t have a lot of money. People used to come at the end of the month and pay up.”

Gerr had started his career as a boy, doing odd jobs for 50 cents an hour at the butcher shop near his St. Paul home at Iglehart and Dale. His apprenticeship started a couple of years later at the Robert Street Market, a butcher shop that was next to the Emporium Department Store in downtown St. Paul.

“I just enjoy it, and I enjoy the people,” Gerr said in 2012. “Waiting on people, meeting people, talking to people.”

It was all about treating customers with respect, Gerr said a few years ago, adding, “which I think everybody deserves.”