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Tri Towers resident killed in fire

A fire apparently caused by an unattended cigarette claimed the life of a resident in a Duluth high-rise Saturday night, according to a report from the Duluth Fire Department.

Tri Towers
Tri Towers apartment complex in Duluth. (News Tribune)

A fire apparently caused by an unattended cigarette claimed the life of a resident in a Duluth high-rise Saturday night, according to a report from the Duluth Fire Department.

Firefighters received a call to Tri Towers, a 14-story apartment building at 222 N. Second Ave. E., at 8:56 p.m. Saturday. They found smoke coming from an apartment on the 13th floor, entered the unit and extinguished the fire, which had been partially controlled by the building's sprinkler system.

A man who appeared to have been smoking a cigarette on a couch was found badly burned on the scene. He was transported to Essentia St. Mary's Hospital in Duluth and then airlifted for additional care to Region's Hospital in St. Paul, but he did not survive. The identity of the victim had not been released Sunday, pending notification of family members.

The fire was the second started by the same tenant in his apartment. On April 20, 2009, firefighters were called to the scene when a discarded cigarette ignited materials in a wastebasket.

The building, which is owned by the Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority, is scheduled to go smoke-free in March.

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Rick Ball, executive director of the HRA, could not be reached for comment Sunday afternoon.

Charlie Vojacek, a nine-year resident of Tri Towers, said he's looking forward to having smoking banned from the building, especially in light of Saturday's death.

Despite recent events, Vojacek said conditions inside the building have generally improved in recent months.

"We used to have a lot of problems with drinking and drugs," he said. "I used to joke that the police should put an office in here, because they had to come down here so often

Fire damage mostly was contained to the victim's single apartment. Limited water damage occurred to other units, but no one was forced to leave home.

Damage to the building and its contents is estimated at about $40,000.

Twenty firefighters responded to Tri Towers Friday night, and crews remained on the scene for about 2½ hours.

A state law that took effect in December 2008 requires all cigarettes sold in Minnesota be certified as "fire standard compliant," meaning the cigarette is designed to extinguish itself if left unattended. There are similar laws on the books in 47 states.

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Nevertheless, cigarette fires have continued to be a problem.

On Dec. 28, Runo Korpi, 70, was found dead in a burning room at the Budget Host Motel in International Falls.

An autopsy indicated that he probably died of a medical problem before the fire. But a cigarette he was smoking is believed to have caused the blaze.

Nationwide, fires started by cigarettes killed 680 people in 2008, caused injury to 1,520 people and resulted in $737 billion in property damage, according to the latest statistics available from National Fire Protection Association.

Burned couch
The remains of a couch sit outside the Tri Towers apartment complex in Duluth on Sunday. A fatal fire was believed to be started by a cigarette. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

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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