ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — When the call came across the pagers, there was something in the dispatcher’s voice that signaled it was serious.
“Her voice sounded distressed.”
“I knew I had to put on real clothes for this one.”
“You could tell the panic in the page.”
“We could hear it, the seriousness, but the average person probably wouldn’t.”
When firefighters respond, they do so because it is their job. It’s what they signed up for and what they trained for. They don’t do it for pats on the back or recognition.
So it wasn’t easy to find firefighters willing to sit down and talk about their experiences in fighting the Feb. 25 fire that destroyed a portion of historic downtown Alexandria.
However, with just a little bit of convincing, seven members of the Alexandria Fire Department were willing to chat about that day – the day that destroyed four buildings, wiped out six businesses and displaced more than 20 residents.
Battalion Chiefs Matt Lanoue and Joe Kuperus, Captain Eric Bjerke and firefighters Aaron Zollner, Mark Sagedahl, Travis Koenig and Joe Waldorf shared their experiences. Waldorf has been on the department the longest at 23 years, with Koenig the shortest at about a year. Kuperus has been on for 15, while Zollner is at 12 years. Bjerke and Lanoue have been on for five years while Sagedahl is at four.
Smoke didn’t help
Koenig was already awake to go work out when his pager went off shortly after 4:30 a.m. When he heard it was a fire downtown, he knew it was going to be big.
“As soon as I got to 13th and Cedar, I could smell the smoke,” he said.
The first 20 minutes on the scene were chaotic, the firefighters said. Thick black smoke penetrated the air and buildings. People were running everywhere. And at first, they didn’t see any flames, just thick, heavy smoke.
When they first arrived, the firefighters’ only thoughts were to rescue anyone who was inside the apartments above the businesses.
However, they didn’t know at first how many people were inside. Unlike some apartment complexes with designated parking lots and numbered spaces, the ones downtown didn’t have that. Firefighters couldn’t determine residents based on the vehicles.
Because of the layout of the buildings, it was also difficult to determine where they were once inside. “You didn’t have a good sense of where you were,” said Zollner.
The smoke didn’t help. Thermal imaging cameras were used and were helpful, but there were times when they probably checked the same area over and over again.
Another challenge was the amount of doors. Most of them throughout the upper level of the buildings were not labeled. Firefighters didn’t know if the doors they were knocking on were for apartments, closets or utility rooms.
One firefighter recalled banging on one door only to find out it literally led nowhere. There was a wall behind it.
Koenig said there was a couple inside that were trapped and had to be pulled out through a window. There was a fear of missing someone and it made them want to double and triple check every door.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” he said. “It felt like a dream.”
Kuperus said it was probably two hours before they knew for sure that every resident was out. Once they learned there were no casualties and everyone made it out safely, there was a sigh of relief. When there are lives on the line, the firefighters said they fight the fire differently. It is more of a search-and-rescue mission than it is a stop the fire mission.
If people are not involved, the focus is on the fire itself.
Training is paramount
Although there were no injuries reported, a couple of firefighters had ceilings fall on them. Because of the way the buildings were constructed with additions and whatnot, there were plenty of false ceilings that posed problems. Additionally, with the age of the buildings there were many voids or spaces where smoke and fire could travel.
The fire department’s training played a huge part in fighting this epic fire. Every Monday night, the Alexandria Fire Department trains. During one of those training sessions, firefighters did a walk-through of some downtown businesses.
“It helped us out,” said Lanoue. “It helped to educate us on what we were fighting. We knew we couldn’t find all of the fire because of all the voids.”
Five other departments were called in for this fire – Forada, Osakis, Carlos, Garfield and Long Prairie. Altogether, more than 100 firefighters were trying to keep the fire from spreading throughout the entire block.
The Alexandria firefighters said everyone worked really well together and that it was like one big department. They blended together and no one questioned anyone. They all had a job to do and they just did it.
At one point, they switched gears and went from being on the offense to defense. Because of how the fire was traveling throughout the voids, the goal became keeping it from spreading to more buildings and businesses.
“We fought really hard,” said Waldorf. “It was a hard decision to take down the buildings.”
Bjerke said it seemed at one point they were ahead of the fire, but it kept changing.
“We were keeping it away and then BAM! It was dark and smokey and flames were everywhere again,” he said.
Their efforts did pay off, however, as the whole block was spared. Yes, four buildings were lost, but it could have been much worse. They were all thankful that no lives were lost.
One thing the men couldn’t stress enough was how blown away they were by the support from the community. From the amount of food and water to people asking what they could do, the support was amazing and they are beyond thankful, they all said.
“Everyone wanted to help,” said Sagedahl, who added that it was pretty cool to have so many retired firefighters who were doing what they could at the station to help out.
Typically, the firefighters have plenty of work to do at the station when they get back from a fire. But this time, much of that work was done by the retirees.
“To come back dirty, wet and cold and not have all that work, that was awesome,” Sagedahl said.
The firefighters said whatever they needed, the community was there to support them.
Zollner added that the department can’t just say thank you enough to the community, but also to all the employers of the firefighters.
“A huge thank you to all of them,” he said. “They let us leave work for all these calls as volunteers and we were out at that fire a complete day. They support us beyond what words can describe.”