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Fire department, neighbors suspect north Minneapolis inferno was arson

Anthony Newby, director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, asks the public's help to find the potential arsonist.

Anthony Newby, director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, asks the public's help to find the potential arsonist.

More than three months after a devastating fire engulfed a historic block in north Minneapolis, displacing families and destroying businesses, Minneapolis police and fire are putting arson on the table.

Early in the morning on April 15, a caretaker at 913 W. Broadway Ave. walked down the back stairwell connecting the apartments on the second floor to the businesses below. He noticed nothing amiss at the time, but within 15 minutes the back door and stairs were awash with flames billowing smoke into the units where families slept.

Samples of wood paneling collected from the floor just inside that doorway tested positive for terpene, a fire accelerant found in turpentine. That discovery, coupled with the caretaker’s story, supports the theory that this fire was intentionally set to spread as rapidly as possible.

Neighbors have suspected as much from the beginning.

Investigators had no official leads about possible motives Tuesday. Instead, they and a number of former tenants are asking members of the public to come forward with information.

On the day of the fire, firefighters scaled ladders to rescue 21 victims. All who lived and worked on the block made it out with their lives, though some lost everything else.

Grady (right) says all businesses in this part of West Broadway have suffered from the near-total depletion of foot traffic.

Grady (right) says all businesses in this part of West Broadway have suffered from the near-total depletion of foot traffic.

Terrance Cargill recalls waking up to the whole building in flames. He had seconds to get out. Marie Egbujor, who runs Paradise Beauty Salon the next block over, has seen her business tank with dwindling foot traffic in the months following the fire.

“I don’t even know what to say right now. I’m very upset to know that somebody did intentionally try to destroy this community,” Egbujor says. “If anybody has any information or any idea who might have done this, please, we need closure. We are pleading for help right now.”

The fire department’s new diagnosis of possible arson will allow displaced residents to explore new avenues for reparations. Those with renter’s insurance can make new claims, and others can tap into state resources for crime victims.

For those who had to move into a shelter or ask family and friends for a place to stay, it’s a small measure of comfort. Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, headquartered next door to the building where the fire originated, collected $23,000 in emergency support for victims in the first week after the blaze. It wasn’t nearly enough for folks who lost everything, says director Anthony Newby.

“For the businesses as well as the folks that lived above, all their lives were radically altered going forward. This is really a community-driven block, and the effects have been disastrous,” Newby says. “There’s a lot of speculation, lots of potential motives, and we just don’t have anything concrete right now.”

Anyone with information about the cause of the fire can leave an anonymous tip with the arson hotline: 1-800-723-2020.