Thanksgiving 1982: A fire for the ages

12:47 PM, Nov 21, 2007   |    comments
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The video clips from 25 years ago don't do it justice. Just ask the Minneapolis firefighters who spent a harrowing night in the middle of the gigantic blaze that came to be known as the "Thanksgiving Fire." "Looking up and seeing bits of debris falling off the windows, and as far as you could see up you saw flames," Assistant Fire Chief Alex Jackson recalled. "And I was thinking man I should've stayed in Seattle, because we were going in there." Jackson was a young firefighter the night of November 25th, 1982. He was one of 150 who responded to the blaze, which began in the vacant, partially demolished Donaldson's Department store and quickly grew into a five-alarm fire. "All I can remember thinking was how did that get this bad? Because there were people downtown, how did it get this bad with all these people down here?" When the flames jumped into the adjacent Northwestern National Bank Building the job became much more treacherous. Firefighters lugged themselves and their gear up many flights of steps to take the fight to the upper floors. "And many people had eaten their Thanksgiving dinner," recalled Assistant Chief John Fruetel who was also on the scene that night as a young firefighter. "So it was definitely on a full stomach trying to carry all the weight of the hose and air bottles, extra equipment all the way up those upper floors multiple times." The upper floors of the bank building had an open atrium, creating a "chimney stack" effect which fueled the inferno. "We call it a stack effect with a lot of wind coming in all the windows. A lot of wind, a lot of noise, you could hear the fire roaring behind some of the doors." On his way up Alex Jackson ran into fellow fireman Ulysess Seal, who now heads the Bloomington Fire Department. "I said, 'What's it like in there?' and Ule told me exactly what I didn't want to hear. 'Nothing but fire!' he says." Jackson recalls crawling inches at a time in the smoke as flames rolled over his head. "We literally wound up laying down on the floor because all you saw was just all this office space and nothing but fire." Even in the surreal icy aftermath hot spots continued to smolder in the charred bank building. John Fruetel recalls fires flaring up in smoldering file cabinets that had been starved of oxygen. "You'd open up file cabinets and it would be like putting a rake under a pile of leaves, as soon as it got that air the file cabinet would just start burning like a pile of leaves." After the fire arson investigators arrested two juveniles who confessed to starting the blaze while playing with a torch left at the department store's demolition site. In 1984 KARE reported that a judge had thrown out the charges based on a belief that one of the suspects was coerced into a confession. Whether the charges were ever refiled, and whether the youths were ever convicted, is unclear 25 years later. Northwestern National decided that the headquarters building, in it's toasted state, would be too expensive to restore. The company salvaged what it could, taking down the venerable Northwest Banks Weather Ball that had sat atop the bank since 1949. The ball went to the Minnesota State Fair, which had hopes of restoring it for permanent display but later found it too costly. The implosion of the Northwestern National Bank building in 1984 was a major news event in it's own right. What rose from the ash and dust was Cesar Pelli's vision of a buff limestone tower, the Norwest Banks Center, now known as the Wells Fargo Center. The bank marked the 25th anniversary with a reception Tuesday for employees who were displaced by the fire, and made due in temporary quarters for years. Among the relics on display for the event at the Wells Fargo Museum was a melted phone found on a desk. It was in a part of the building the flames never reached, but it clearly felt the heat. The city's skyline was changed forever by a fire many will never forget, especially those who put their lives on the line fighting it. As Chief Jackson put it, "There's certain things things that happen in your life that you make you just go 'Whoah!' That was one of them. That was one of them."

By John Croman, KARE 11 News

(Copyright 2007 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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