Updated: 09/14/2013 9:56 AM KSTP.com By: Scott Theisen
Photo: Hanns Dammerman
Three buildings were a total loss in Friday's blaze that damaged several businesses, apartments and a mosque in an older part of downtown Winona, Fire Chief Curt Bittle said.
Bittle told reporters the fire apparently began in the Winona Islamic Center several hours before it was reported around 2 a.m. He said center's roof had already collapsed when firefighters arrived.
Bittle said the cause of the fire had not been determined, and there were no immediate signs of arson. He said that the state fire marshal would investigate.
The fire chief expressed relief that nobody was hurt and that the destruction wasn't worse.
"At one point I really thought we were going to lose the entire block," Bittle said.
Bittle and Winona Police Chief Paul Bostrack told a news conference Friday that there is nothing to indicate that any foul play is involved, the Winona Daily News reported.
Firefighters contained the blaze by midmorning, and crews knocked down some storefronts to extinguish the debris.
Of the three destroyed buildings, one housed the Islamic Center and another housed the Brosnahan Law Firm. The fire also displaced more than a dozen residents of upstairs apartments. The Red Cross was assisting them.
Officials did not have a damage estimate.
Mayor Mark Peterson, who is also director of the Winona County Historical Society, said it was sad to lose historic buildings. But he said he's proud of all of those who helped contain the fire.
"We're going to do what we can to get this cleaned up. It could have been a lot worse than it was," Peterson said.
Ahmed El-Afandi, a retired political science professor at Winona State University who founded the Islamic Center, said there had been no threats against the mosque.
"Nobody (in the community) has given us any trouble," he told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis.
Buildings that house Sole Sport, Blooming Grounds and Integrative Health also were among those heavily damaged.
Paul Brosnahan said his law office was a total loss, "but fortunately, our business records are all backed up electronically off-site."
The fire "got into an attic, and it was jumping from building to building," he said, relaying information he received from fire officials. "I had an apartment with three young (Winona State University) sophomores. Fortunately, all three young girls are safe."
Jake Lindberg, who also lived above the law office, said all of his belongings were inside.
"I like some of the things I have," he told the Winona Daily News as he looked at sooty water pouring from the building's front entrance. "But I like life more."
Winona is a city of about 28,000 people about 110 miles southeast of Minneapolis on the Mississippi River.
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