See more of the story

A fast-moving fire broke out early Christmas Day in downtown Minneapolis' Francis Drake Hotel, displacing more than 200 residents from an aging, once opulent apartment building that now serves as temporary housing for homeless people.

At least two people were hospitalized with noncritical injuries, fire officials said. Several others were treated at the scene.

Firefighters were called about 3 a.m. and evacuated residents from the building near S. 5th Avenue and 10th Street. The blaze started in the back of the second floor, then climbed to the top floor of the three-story building before spreading to the attic and through the roof, officials said.

The U-shaped building, used to house the homeless when Hennepin County's primary shelters are full, can accommodate as many as 250 people, but authorities said it wasn't immediately clear how many were inside early Wednesday.

Built in 1926 as a luxury hotel, the Drake has 146 rooms. Like other buildings of its size and age, it is not required to have sprinklers.

By 5 a.m., the fire had gone to four alarms. Smoke engulfed the area and made it difficult to breathe. High humidity and above-freezing temperatures already had enveloped much of downtown in an eerie fog, and smoke lingered into early evening.

The blaze, whose cause remains under investigation, came scarcely a month after a Thanksgiving week fire at a Minneapolis Public Housing Authority high rise in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood killed five people, injured four and displaced dozens.

As hundreds of the Drake's residents, some of whom were able to collect just a few possessions before fleeing, stood outside wondering what to do next, city officials and complete strangers marshaled to help them.

Video (01:50) The Francis Drake Hotel was transitional housing for more than 200 residents.

Mayor Jacob Frey struggled to contain his emotions at the scene. "These are real people that need a roof over their head, who need help," he said. "And of all the buildings in the entire city, this is the one that's got to go up in flames right now."

"The only word that truly comes to mind is heartbreaking," Frey said, standing alongside Fire Chief John Fruetel. "These are people's lives. This is their home. They're concerned about everything from a wallet or a phone so they can get in touch with a loved one on Christmas, to where is their baby going to get formula."

Fruetel said that early on, firefighters tried to contain the blaze to the eastern half of the structure, but once flames reached the attic, they spread throughout the entire building.

"We worked tirelessly … trying to save what we could of the belongings of these folks who are so tragically affected," he said.

Four Metro Transit double-length buses were parked by the Drake with residents inside wrapped in blankets. Because of heavy smoke, the buses were later moved to S. 9th Street.

The Red Cross was soon on the scene, distributing blankets, coffee and snacks. The Salvation Army also arrived with food, water and baby wipes.

And as word spread, unsolicited donations began to stream in. Citizens showed up with suitcases and duffel bags packed with donated boots, clothes and blankets. Others brought bags and platters of cold and warm food.

By late afternoon, donations were piled so high at the scene that authorities declared that no more were needed and offered their thanks to all who reached out on Christmas Day to help. Those wanting to help were advised to contact the Minnesota Red Cross or the Minneapolis Foundation, which set up a fund to help with Drake residents' immediate and long-term needs.

Lesley Evans, 20, said she and her three children, ages 1, 2 and 5, were asleep in their second-floor room facing the courtyard when she heard screaming and someone yelling, "Fire!"

She saw flames out the window, so called 911. She touched the door to her apartment with the back of her hand, opened it and quickly closed it. "It was too smoky for me and the kids to get out," she said.

Evans stayed on the phone with the 911 operator, who had her grab a towel, wet it and go into a closet. But she said it got too smoky, forcing the family of four to move into the bathroom.

Still receiving directions on the phone, Evans grabbed a sheet from the bed, ran it under water in the bathroom and laid it down at the base of the door. "I was trying to stay positive, telling my son, 'No, we're not going to die,' " she said.

She texted her mom, who lives in Brooklyn Center, "I texted her, 'I can't breathe. I'm trapped in a room. There's a fire,' " Evans said.

Evans was in the room with her children for 30 minutes before firefighters pounded on the door.

They got outside, Evans wearing only a T-shirt, boots and underwear. She said her 5-year-old son was in his boxer shorts, a coat and boots. Her 1-year-old wore only a diaper.

Other residents gave her boots and a coat. Evans said her mother came and took her two older children home, while the father of her 1-year-old daughter took her with him.

"We lost everything. My kids have no clothes," she said.

David Joles
Video (01:46) A tenant who lives across the hall from where authorities are focusing firefighting efforts says she lost Christmas presents, her phone, work computer and doesn't know where she'll go after the early morning fire.

Alliyah Ross and Jamal Jones, both 20, and their baby were in a room on the third floor. Both said they ignored the alarm at first, thinking it was a test. When it kept beeping, Jones went to the front desk and learned it was real, so he ran back up to get Ross and the baby.

"We weren't going to grab the baby if it wasn't a real alarm," Jones said.

Shaii Jones, 26, was at the shelter with her 12- and 5-year-old daughters. She heard the alarm and immediately knew to get out. "I've been through a fire before," she said. She called a friend who lives in north Minneapolis to come get her daughters.

Jones said she came to Minnesota from Fort Worth, Texas, two months ago. "My daughter wanted to build a snowman for her birthday," she said.

She watched as gray smoke rolled out of the top of the building. Volunteers handed out cookies and bananas.

"They're doing what they can … but we're literally watching our lives burn," Jones said.

Fire investigators head into the Francis Drake Hotel apartments, gutted during a Christmas Day fire.
Fire investigators head into the Francis Drake Hotel apartments, gutted during a Christmas Day fire.

Star Tribune, Star Tribune