Duluth man saves five from fire
A fire Monday morning sent two men to the hospital and extensively damaged a building at 1923 W. Superior St.
But for the actions of Mark Howard, it could have been far worse. Howard entered the building's smoke-filled second floor and led five people to safety.
"It was very heroic -- we would have had some victims if he had not been there," Duluth Fire Department Assistant Chief Mitch Peterson said.
Howard, 45, a commercial fisherman and owner of the Fish House, was having his morning coffee at Jim's Hamburgers when someone noticed smoke coming from the burning building. Howard rushed toward the building, knowing that an elderly man is often there repairing musical instruments.
"I got about 50 feet from the building and the glass started breaking," he said. "I was walking up in front of it and it blew out and flames shot out of the building. I couldn't get close enough to go up the front stairwell.
"I couldn't see if anyone was in the building because of the flame and smoke," Howard said. "So I ran around to the back and tried to get in the steel door but that was locked. So I went up the [exterior] stairs. The smoke was rolling out of the building pretty bad, but I heard somebody up there."
Howard said he never hesitated, never thought of the danger -- knowing that people were in the building and in trouble was enough for him.
"I knocked the door open and got on my hands and knees and went in," he said. "I had to go onto my hands and knees. I had a foot-and-a-half, maybe 20 inches from the floor to the smoke line. I was just crawling on my hands and knees just looking for the people. The floor was just burning -- it was really hot to the touch.
"I grabbed a woman by the ankle and walked her out to the stairwell," he said. "I got her son. Then there was another guy standing there in a T-shirt. I said, 'You have to go. Your place is on fire.' "
Howard guided him to the stairs, where an unidentified man who had been waiting for a bus helped get him away from the building. Howard went back in and guided another man to safety. Safe outside, Howard asked him if anyone else remained inside.
"My brother, he just had back surgery," the man said.
Once again Howard entered the smoke-filled building, crawling until he saw a foot of the last tenant.
"I dragged him by his foot," Howard said. "He let out a yell and I said 'It's OK. You have to walk as fast as you can.' "
Firefighters arrived on the scene as Howard guided the fifth person to safety. Two of the men Howard rescued were taken to St. Mary's Medical Center to be treated for smoke inhalation, Peterson said. Both were conscious and alert when transported.
The fire at the two-story brick building was reported at 9:23 a.m. The entire front of the building was engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived.
"It was kind of strange there was so much fire in the middle of the daytime on Superior Street before anybody was able to call it in," Peterson said.
K.J. Donnahue of Duluth said he saw the fire develop.
"The flames were shooting out of the front windows. It blew the front windows out. It went to the second story immediately,'' Donnahue said. "The fire department got there real fast and they got it put down pretty fast.''
Peterson said it didn't take long to knock down the main body of the fire, in part because all the front windows had blown out.
"They attacked [the fire] from the outside with heavy hose lines," Peterson said. "Within five minutes the main body of the fire was knocked down, but then we had to chase it throughout the building and up into the three apartments upstairs."
It took more than an hour before the fire was declared completely extinguished. Twenty-three firefighters from three stations responded to the fire.
The building contained Albertson's Instrument Service repair shop and an attorney's office downstairs and the apartments upstairs. The attorney, Art Albertson, was in court in Hibbing during the fire, Peterson said.
"The fire appeared to have started in the business in the front of the first floor," Peterson said. "That was pretty much gutted out."
The fire caused $100,000 in damage to the building and $50,000 in damage to its contents, Peterson estimated. Second Looks Books next door also suffered smoke damage. The cause of the fire is under investigation.
Howard played down his actions, noting that Jim's Hamburgers fed the people displaced by the fire, that the Salvation Army gave him a wheelchair for the man with the back operation and offered clothing to them. The Red Cross also was on the scene, working with the displaced people.
"There's a lot of good people in the West End yet," Howard said.
The Duluth New Tribune has a photo gallery and portions of a news release from the Duluth Fire Department.
STEVE KUCHERA can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5503 or by e-mail at skuchera@duluth news.com. News Tribune staff writer John Myers contributed to this report.