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9 in Lincoln Park homeless after triplex fire

A fire early Sunday afternoon in Duluth's Lincoln Park neighborhood left nine people homeless, according to Tyler Vekich who lived in the upstairs unit of the three-floor rental property.

Triplex fire
Duluth firefighters battle a blaze at 2314 West Eighth St. on Sunday afternoon.(Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

A fire early Sunday afternoon in Duluth's Lincoln Park neighborhood left nine people homeless, according to Tyler Vekich who lived in the upstairs unit of the three-floor rental property.

Firefighters responded to a 12:29 p.m. report of a fire in progress at 2314 W. Eighth St. but found the structure already seriously involved when they got there.

"Within minutes of arriving, we had a smoke explosion in the attic that blew a section of the roof off," said Assistant Fire Chief Erik Simonson.

He explained that fire had spread through the walls and attic of the older home. After multiple remodeling jobs, the building had several levels of ceilings, and its attic had been partitioned into multiple spaces, making it difficult to gain access to the fire, Simonson said.

Stephen Smith, a first-floor resident of the triplex, said he was working on his home computer when he first noticed an odor of smoke, but he suspected it was coming from a neighbor's wood stove.

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Then his downstairs neighbor ran up to warn him that the house was on fire.

Smith rushed to tell his wife, Lisa, and their 5-year-old daughter, Sidney, telling them to grab their coats and get out, even though both were still in pajamas.

"I've never seen her move that fast before," Smith said of his wife's swift and effective response.

Smith rescued his wallet and computer from the home, but considers everything else a loss.

After his own family got out of the building safely, Smith said he was most concerned about the welfare of a couple that lived upstairs. At the time, he didn't know whether Vekich and his live-in girlfriend, Cerissa Williams, were home or not.

Smith called Vekich's cell phone and was relieved to learn that the couple was out of the building doing laundry.

Vekich said at first he thought he was the butt of a bad joke, but by Smith's tone, he soon realized this was a serious matter.

Williams said she and Vekich, both 21, had just moved into the triplex in November and had just begun to build a household together.

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"Now, what I'm wearing is all I have left. Everything else is gone," she said.

"Still, we've got to be thankful that we have our lives, and we have the support of our families," Williams said. "We'll make it through this."

Although all the tenants were out of the building when firefighters arrived, Simonson said a cat was successfully rescued from the lower-level unit.

Firefighters remained on the scene for five hours. Simonson characterized the damage as "serious," saying it was probably too soon to declare the house a total loss.

Damage to the structure is estimated at $85,000 and to contents at $75,000.

The cause of the fire has yet to be determined, but Smith said it appeared to begin in the right-rear corner of the building. Simonson observed the blaze apparently caused initial damage to the upper levels of the structure.

A fire marshal will investigate to determine the fire's probable cause.

Smith's family has lived in the home for six years, and he said: "It's been an excellent place to live."

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He said his landlord, Rodney Nelson, made sure to install and maintain working smoke and carbon monoxide alarms and the building had been subject to periodic safety inspections.

Although the Smith family did not have rental insurance, Stephen said he feels fortunate that his parents, who live just a half-block away, are nearby to help.

"Mostly, I'm just glad that everyone got out, and everybody is OK," he said.

The triplex fire was the second structure fire in Lincoln Park Sunday. In the morning firefighters responded to 2704. W. Sixth St. for an attic fire in a single-family home. That fire caused an estimated $15,000 in damages.

The fire was caused when an electrical circuit overheated because of the use of several space heaters, Simonson said.

That is at least the second Northland fire in a week caused by the use of more than one space heater. On Jan. 16 a Superior duplex was damaged by a fire after the downstairs tenant used at least two space heaters.

Related Topics: FIRES
Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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