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Who started the Minneapolis Thanksgiving Fire of 1982 that caused more than $232 million in damage?

Two juveniles were charged with arson related to the fire, which caused $75 million in damage, or $232 million in 2022 dollars. However, charges were later dropped. Why?

Newspapers.com image from Dec. 28, 1982 edition of Minneapolis Star Tribune.
A Dec. 28, 1982 photo from the Minneapolis Star Tribune depicts the damage done in the wake of the Thanksgiving Day Fire, which caused more than $75 million in damage.
Minneapolis Star Tribune photo from Newspapers.com.
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MINNEAPOLIS — As Minnesotans gathered together in 1982 to enjoy Thanksgiving feasts with loved ones, two young boys were allegedly about to make a $232 million mistake.

The two kids, ages 12 and 13, were on their way home from a Thanksgiving evening movie in downtown Minneapolis when they meandered off on a detour, according to authorities later.

Their adventure led them through the demolition site of the Radisson Hotel and, eventually, to the then-vacant Donaldson's Department Store, which they entered by breaking through a plywood door.

When they made their way inside the building, they allegedly used cigarette lighters and a blowtorch to start a fire — a blaze that grew to threaten the structure of the entire city.

Their actions created a domino effect of chaos and hardship for the more than 130 firefighters who were called away from their warm homes to the scene. Fighting against a threat that could have left the downtown area in shambles, firefighters battled the firestorm for 12 hours.

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As the flames died out, and a sigh of relief fell over the city, residents woke up the following morning to the reality of the damage.

With ice and ash covering the streets, it was clear to onlookers that the skyline had been altered. The former Donaldson's Department Store had been destroyed, along with the 16-story Northwestern Bank Building headquarters. The damage topped $75 million ($232 million in 2022 dollars).

Saving the city

While the fire was devastating on many levels, residents were quick to point out that the holiday itself – Thanksgiving – had, in a sense, saved the city from the loss of human life.

Had it been any other Thursday, the downtown area would have been bustling with workers and holiday shoppers. Yet, because it was a collective day off, firefighters didn’t have to evacuate the area’s many buildings and businesses.

Some firefighters were taken to area hospitals for smoke inhalation, yet the day came and went without any fatalities.

For those who were in the midst of the battle, that was somewhat of a holiday miracle.

A Star Tribune photo from 1982 shows the damage done to the Northwestern National Bank headquarters in downtown Minneapolis
The 16-story Northwestern National Bank headquarters building was destroyed in the 1982 Thanksgiving Fire that ravaged downtown Minneapolis.
Star Tribune image from Newspapers.com

With the fire on the verge of spreading beyond the city block, Assistant Fire Chief Tom Dickinson and his team began to contemplate what could be done to stop the fire from ravaging the entire downtown area.

One possible scenario they considered was imploding the Dayton building, which would have created somewhat of a barrier to contain the fire.

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Thankfully, the wind was working in their favor,. The Dayton building was safe.

While firefighters were able to keep the fire from spreading throughout the skywalk system, lower level windows of the IDS building were shattered. Charles Lindbergh’s first airplane, however, which was on display in the Minneapolis skyway system at the time, was spared.

Had the wind been heavy that evening, firefighters claim the IDS building, among others, would no longer be standing today.

What happened to the firestarters?

Newspaper articles in the days and weeks following the Thanksgiving blaze paint an interesting story in which officials blamed arson, dismissed arson, and, eventually, admitted to arson being the cause of the fire.

While arson was initially considered to be the cause of the fire, officials walked back that claim, asserting there was no incentive for someone to cause the fire. The original arson rumblings began when eyewitnesses reported that a man was allegedly seen fleeing from the area in the aftermath of the fire.

In a Dec. 4, 1982 article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minneapolis Fire Department’s Chief Arson Investigator Jim Carlson said claims related to a man fleeing the fire were not true. He went on to state that reports that witnesses heard a man saying he deserved a reward for starting the fire were also not true.

A Dec. 4, 1982 headline in the Star Tribunes indicates officials ruled out arson for profit as the cause of the Thanksgiving Day Fire.
A Dec. 4, 1982 headline in the Star Tribunes indicates officials ruled out arson for profit as the cause of the Thanksgiving Day Fire.
Star Tribune headline image from Newspapers.com

Later that month, Carlson and law enforcement were handed the truth behind the mystery when they received a call from a set of concerned parents.

In the days before Christmas, with the Thanksgiving Day fire still gaining headlines and television news coverage, the 12- and 13-year-old boys responsible for causing the fire came clean to their parents. They claimed they broke through a snow-covered barrier and plywood door to enter the Donaldson's building.

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Each child faced arson charges related to the incident. While awaiting trial, the 12-year-old was held in the youth detention center in the Hennepin County Jail, according to a Dec. 28 article in the Star Tribune. The 13-year-old also remained in custody.

The trials that played out included arguments from both lawyers that pointed fingers between the two boys, with each casting blame on one another. John Stuart, the lawyer defending the 12-year-old, argued that his client was charged based on uncorroborated statements made by a 13-year-old.

“We agree with the state that there was a big fire,” he said, according to a Dec. 3, 1982 Star Tribune article. “But they’re a long way from any corroborating evidence that shows the youth started the fire.”

In the end, charges were dropped against both boys. In court depositions, each said they lied to police, rendering their statements inadmissible in court.

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Trisha Taurinskas is an enterprise crime reporter for Forum Communications Co., specializing in stories related to missing persons, unsolved crime and general intrigue. Her work is primarily featured on The Vault.

Trisha is also the host of The Vault podcast.

Trisha began her journalism career at Wisconsin Public Radio. She transitioned to print journalism in 2008, and has since covered local and national issues related to crime, politics, education and the environment.

Trisha can be reached at ttaurinskas@forumcomm.com.
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