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Minneapolis fire officials cannot pinpoint the cause of the Christmas Day blaze that spread from a single apartment to destroy the Francis Drake Hotel, leaving about 200 people homeless.

Using witness statements and the science behind fire patterns, the Minneapolis Fire Department was able to determine that it began in Unit 244 on the second floor of the historic building, said Larry Oker, who works in the Fire Investigations Unit. But fire and water damage prevented firefighters and insurance representatives from safely accessing the starting point, Oker said.

"We could speculate all day long, but that's not what we do in my office," he said, adding later: "It's very specific in our job that if we don't identify the ignition source, it should be labeled and classified as undetermined."

City officials did not immediately release the names of those who lived inside the apartment, but said they had spoken to them. Oker declined to elaborate on those conversations, but said, "The investigators at this time have not discovered anything that would indicate that the fire was intentionally set."

The lack of clarity frustrated some residents, who have heard many unconfirmed theories as they grapple with the trauma from the fire and work to secure longer-term housing.

The 93-year-old hotel was destroyed in the fire, and on Thursday city building inspectors announced that they were ordering the entire structure demolished. Last week, they left open the possibility of saving the western half.

When a contractor hired by the city began work, "it became apparent that the building was just extremely unstable," said Steven Poor, development services director for the city's Community Planning & Economic Development office.

With the Drake gone, its residents are now scattered. Some who lived there as part of an overflow shelter program run through Hennepin County are now staying at a hotel in Bloomington. Others, primarily those who rented their own rooms at the Drake, are staying at the First Covenant Church in downtown Minneapolis. Others have found housing on their own.

Tavonne Moses, who is staying at the church, said the days since the fire have been difficult and emotional. She was at home when it began about 3 a.m. on Christmas Day, and she escaped with help from a man who led her out of the building.

"He grabbed me and took me out," she said. "I don't even remember getting out of the stairs, anything. That's just how black it was."

She spent the following hours on a bus, where they tried to stay warm while they watched the building burn and people drop off donations. In recent days, she's stayed at the church "sleeping next to other people that I don't know" as security guards watch. She said the bathrooms aren't as private as she'd hoped. And, she's been frustrated by the pace at which they've been receiving assistance.

"I don't want to sound ungrateful, but I just feel like things should be done a little different," she said.

Moses said she's part of a group of people who wrote a letter to Mayor Jacob Frey asking to have a greater voice in how the Minneapolis Foundation spends the roughly $470,000 raised to assist them. They also asked him to appoint an ombudsman to help them.

The mayor said Thursday that he is open to appointing an ombudsman and would speak with his staff about how to go about that. Frey said he has spoken to the foundation. But it's a private organization that is separate from the city.

Much of the money so far has gone to aid groups that are assisting the residents. Some of the residents would like to be able to use the money to cover their first month's rent and security deposits at their next homes. Frey said he agreed that the money should be used "for direct support."

Jo-Anne Stately, impact director for the Minneapolis Foundation, said Thursday that it would work to provide rental assistance but "that will not be going to the individuals. We're going to work with intermediaries to do that."

Stately said she thinks that working with nonprofits will allow people to access additional services, such as help finding jobs. Those groups, she said, will have expertise or resources that the foundation might not.

"We're a foundation, so we're not a direct-service entity," she said.

Staff photographer David Joles contributed to this report. Liz Navratil • 612-673-4994


Drake Fire

A fast-moving fire destroyed the old hotel at 416 S. 10th St. in downtown Minneapolis, eliminating a scarce resource: housing for homeless families.

When it started: Christmas Day about 3 a.m.

Cause: Undetermined, though it started in a second-floor apartment

Residents displaced: More than 200

What’s next: Local nonprofits are working to help residents find new homes. The city announced Thursday that the entire structure would be demolished.

How to help: American Red Cross at RedCross.org/mn or Minneapolis Foundation at minneapolisfoundation.org