A fire that drove 59 people from a Stillwater apartment complex was arson, the Minnesota fire marshal ruled yesterday.
Just after 3 a.m. Wednesday morning, residents of Birchwood Apartments noticed smoke, and some reported hearing what sounded like an explosion.
Firefighters kept the blaze from consuming the building, and all 59 tenants made it out safely.
"That's what's miraculous," Stillwater Police Chief John Gannaway said. "As quick as it spread, there were no injuries. Considering it was an arson, a set fire, it went about as smooth as it could go."
The fire damaged 16 units, eight of them badly, and police kept residents out of the complex for most of the day.
At 5 a.m. yesterday, tenants were taken across the street for temporary housing in the First Presbyterian Church. Red Cross volunteers brought cereal and coffee for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and a potluck dinner was arranged for last night.
Jan George, executive director of the St. Croix Valley chapter of the Red Cross, said many of the renters were young, including several single mothers. Because they weren't allowed back in to their units, 21 tenants had to stay in the church last night, sleeping on Red Cross cots.
George said a meeting this morning would determine whether to keep the shelter open again tonight, and said some of those in the eight badly-burned units won't be able to return for weeks.
Gannaway could not confirm that an explosive was used to start the fire, but said multiple witnesses reported hearing a boom before the fire.
As residents stood outside the building, some pointed out a person lingering nearby. Gannaway said that person was briefly detained, questioned and let go, but had not been ruled out as a suspect. He said investigators were currently looking in to several leads to find the arsonist.
There is a $2,500 reward to anyone who can help find the arsonist, and tips can be called in to 1-800-723-2020.