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Nurse rescued tenants from fast-spreading fire in Duluth's Central Hillside

A volunteer firefighter sprang to action and likely saved lives.

A firefighter kneels while working on unraveling a hose
A firefighter kneels while unraveling a hose as crews battle a fire at the rear of a building on the 500 block of East Fourth Street in Duluth on Wednesday.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Paul Brown, a registered nurse for Essentia Health, was attending a rally with fellow striking members of the Minnesota Nurses Association Wednesday evening when he caught a whiff of something that didn't seem right.

"I thought I smelled smoke, and because of that, I was having a hard time paying attention to the speaker," said Brown, who also is about a 5-year veteran of the Chisholm Volunteer Fire Department.

As he scanned his surroundings, Brown saw what looked like faint wisps of smoke rising from a nearby building.

"I just took off, and as I approached, I could see a pile of wooden pallets that were leaning on the backside of the building was on fire and it was spreading," Brown said.

While his mother, who was attending the rally as a show of support for her son and other striking nurses, called 911, Brown sprinted to warn people in the upstairs apartment units that the building was on fire.

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"I knew it was climbing fast," he said.

The exterior door was locked, but he shouted and banged on it, attracting the attention of a startled tenant, who let him in.

Once inside, Brown advised the man to leave and ran to the doors of the building's three other apartments. There was no answer at two of the apartments, which later turned out to be unoccupied at the time, but a man responded at the third.

"It seemed like he was kind of in shock," Brown recalled of the tenant's initial incredulous response.

With smoke beginning to spread down the hall, Brown told the man in no uncertain terms that he had better get out in a hurry, and he did just that.

Brown said he thought about trying to kick down the other two apartment doors, but as flames became visible in a stairway, he decided against it and left the building himself.

"I'm just glad I was in the right place at the right time, and I had the training to help," he said.

At a Thursday morning press conference, Duluth Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj praised Brown for his quick and selfless response, noting that he quite possibly saved lives.

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"He made a difference. There's no doubt about it," he said.

The cause of the fire, at 522 E. Fourth St., remains under investigation, said Fire Marshal Lisa Consie, explaining that because of the building's unstable condition, she had not yet had an opportunity to explore its interior as of Thursday morning.

Krizaj said early indications seem to point to the fire beginning after hours in the lower floor of Lake Superior Medical Equipment. The fire call was received at 5:37 p.m. Wednesday, and the business owner said staff left work at 5 p.m. The business sells oxygen and other medical supplies and equipment.

Crews battle a fire at the rear of a building
Crews battle a fire at the rear of a building on the 500 block of East Fourth Street in Duluth on Wednesday.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

"We did have some reports of explosions. But to my knowledge, I don't believe those were oxygen cylinders exploding," he said, suggesting that the popping noises people reported were likely the sound of tires exploding on a vehicle that also caught fire.

But Krizaj said the presence of oxygen was a concern. Other factors included natural gas that had be shut off and a stiff wind off the lake. "So it was a very rapidly spread fire, and our people did a great job when they got on the scene of hitting that and knocking it down as quickly as they could and doing an internal search," he said.

Fortunately no one was found still inside the building, after the two apartment tenants evacuated the premises.

Krizaj said the fire was brought fully under control by about 10:30 or 11 p.m. Wednesday, but crews remained on the scene throughout the night and into the following day to tend to hot spots that threatened to reignite the structure.

"We kept the fire controlled and contained to the actual building of origin, which was the medical supply company. But there is definitely going to be some smoke and probably some water damage to some of the adjacent structures," Krizaj said.

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About 38 firefighters responded to the scene. and Krizaj said another 22 firefighters reported for off-shift duty to make sure the rest of the city had fire coverage, while crews continued to battle the Central Hillside blaze.

Duluth firefighters also received assistance from the Superior Fire Department, which sent an aerial unit to the fire, and from the 148th Air National Guard unit, which sent a mobile unit equipped to refill firefighters' air bottles on the scene.

"The building is probably going to be a total loss. We can't get into that right now. But you can look at it, and it's pretty obvious," Krizaj said.

While community members were quick and helpful to report the fire, Krizaj said he was disappointed that on at least two occasions, motorists drove over fire hoses Wednesday night.

"That is extremely dangerous for us, because if we lose water supply to those crews inside a fire like that, it can be catastrophic. It could actually be fatal," he said, urging the public to please steer clear of fire hoses at a fire scene.

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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