Posted on Mon, Jun. 06, 2005

Fire destroys businesses

Exhaust fan blamed in 3-alarm blaze that gutted building, closed 5 blocks to traffic

St. Paul Pioneer Press

Bruce and Rosa Schleicher spent the past six years building their Sims Avenue framing company into a family enterprise. The shop employed their two daughters, a son and a daughter-in-law.

On Sunday, the family business came to a smoldering end as the Maplewood couple watched years of hard work burn to rubble.

Authorities believe a faulty exhaust fan sparked the three-alarm fire that swept through a warehouse-size commercial building in St. Paul's East Side neighborhood. Flames collapsed the roof of the three-story building into lower levels and sent heavy smoke billowing down adjacent streets for most of the day, driving a handful of residents from nearby homes. Smoke could be seen from more than a mile away.

No one was hurt in the fire, which broke out shortly after 9 a.m. and burned through the late afternoon. Officials closed a five-block surrounding area to vehicles until late in the day. The building, at 612 Sims Ave. near Payne Avenue, housed 11 commercial tenants, including small companies that dealt heavily in wood, paints and other flammable materials that fed the blaze.

"It's gone, totally gone," said cabinet-maker Clyde Ciccarelli of the self-titled shop he opened two years ago. "It's sitting on the first floor, and it was on the third floor."

Authorities said the building, which dates to 1929, did not have an emergency sprinkler system. Sprinkler systems are required in new construction, but older buildings retain nonconforming "grandfather" rights, said St. Paul Fire Chief Douglas Holton.

The building was unsafe to enter, so firefighters positioned multiple engine ladders to fight the blaze from overhead with heavy streams of water, while a State Patrol helicopter took infrared photos to trace the fire's interior path from an aerial view.

A second, unrelated fire at 9 W. Seventh Place left a 57-year-old St. Paul man suffering from second- and third-degree burns to more than 30 percent of his body. The fire, which broke out in the man's kitchen at 11 a.m., was contained to his apartment, Holton said.

The man was taken to Hennepin County Medical Center, where authorities said he was placed in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber to treat his wounds. His name was not released Sunday, and the cause of the fire was still under investigation. "He's in serious condition," Holton said.

The Sims Avenue blaze drew 75 firefighters, including three vehicles from the Minneapolis Fire Department. Four St. Paul fire companies were staffed with off-duty personnel.

"This is the busiest day since I've been fire chief for over two years," Holton said. "We don't see this type of fire that often."

Authorities said they were thankful the fire occurred on a Sunday, when only one worker was in the building, which bustles during the workweek with approximately 60 people.

Building owner Rick Igo said the fire began in a second-floor exhaust fan as tenant Mike Seitz, of Seitz and Co., worked in his shop. Seitz could not be reached for comment. "He tried to put it out with a fire extinguisher, couldn't get it out, so he ran to another floor to get another," Igo said.

Unable to suppress the blaze himself, fire department officials said, Seitz called 911. Other business owners said it was unclear whether his call went through; authorities also received several calls from neighbors and others in the area who spotted flames emanating from the building.

Igo said he would hire engineers to examine the structure today to determine whether the building's outer walls can be saved.

The site, formerly known as Martin Bakery, is of resistant, mill-style construction, said Igo, who owns the site with business partner Michael Wagner. "Normally, these buildings were built to withstand four or five big fires," Igo said. He also said he hired off-duty St. Paul Police personnel to guard the building around the clock.