by AMELIA WEDEMEYER
It was the last personal belonging excavated from the remains of an apartment above the former Mason Jar Bar on East Third Street. Wedged between a bed headboard and the wall, the pink baby blanket was frozen, but intact, when Winona Fire Department (WFD) firefighters managed to find it. Unlike the majority of her personal items, along with her pet rats and gerbils, Desiree Mueller’s baby blanket had somehow managed to survive the February 6 fire that also left Mueller and her boyfriend homeless. In effect, the recovery of Mueller’s sentimental blanket was a tiny miracle. “Those are the kinds of things that are nice to get people,” said Matt Lisowski, a WFD fire captain.
The early morning fire that destroyed several apartments and the Mason Jar Bar began around 12:34 a.m. on February 6, when Winona Police Department (WPD) Sergeant Kevin Kearney was on routine patrol in the area of Third Street. Kearney had been checking on the status of the crowds downtown when he noticed a peculiar haze in the sky. “I saw a bright flashing strobe light, which caught my eye,” he remembered, “and I noticed there was smoke — too much [smoke rolling out] for it to have been from a chimney.” Kearney immediately pulled over and ran into the Mason Jar to inform the bar patrons and staff to evacuate the building. The 10 people inside the bar quickly made for the exit. “I told them, ‘the building is on fire and you need to evacuate now,’” Kearney said, “and their eyeballs [widened] and they ran out the door in a matter of seconds.” With the help of a bartender, Kearney was able to gain access to the apartments. Normally locked, the door to the upstairs apartments had been slightly propped open, unlocked. Kearney, along with the bartender and WPD Patrol Officer Douglas Cichosz, began banging on the apartment doors, helping residents to evacuate.
“I woke up about 12:30 a.m. to my fire alarm going off,” Mueller recalled. “I checked the hall to see what was going on.” In the hallway she noticed smoke and went back inside her apartment to grab her coat and shoes. By the time Mueller had retrieved her items and gone back into the hall, the smoke had doubled. “It was very smoke-filled upstairs,” Kearney said, which indicated to him that the fire was serious. As residents left their apartments and evacuated the building, Kearney went into the laundry room and saw the actual fire raging in the attic above the laundry room. “It was totally engulfed,” he remembered.
To Kearney, the location of the fire was strange. “I guess I question how on earth it was started,” he said. “It did strike me as a weird location, that it would be that hot.” Although WFD officials could not confirm the source of the fire, Mueller’s boyfriend, Mike Kulas, said that he had been informed by firefighters and police that the fire started in the attic above the laundry room. “[I think the fire] started in the middle of the building and worked its way to the front and to the back,” he explained. According to WFD Assistant Fire Chief Jason Theusch, the WFD is still working to figure out where exactly in the building the fire started. In order to determine the source of a fire, Theusch said that fire officials examine char patterns, the depth of burning, light v-shaped patterns, and interview witnesses.
Within five minutes of alerting and rescuing tenants, Kearney said that he and Cichosz evacuated the building, informing the incoming firefighters of the apartment numbers they were unable to access and that there were dogs inside one of the locked apartments. Although all of the tenants who were home at the time were able to make it out with Kearney, the firefighters performed their routine duty. “They were able to get through the doors that were locked,” Kearney explained.
Kulas, who had been informed at work that his apartment was on fire, said that he was standing on the other side of the street when he witnessed the floor of Apartment Two fall into the Mason Jar. “When the floor collapsed the door [to the Mason Jar] blew open,” he recalled. “It’s not every day you get to see a floor collapse.”
“To me, it wasn’t scary; it was sad,” Mueller said of the fire. “[We were] watching our home burn down.”
Future of 151 East Third Street
Chase Hoffmann, who co-owns the 129-year-old building, said that he is currently trying to figure out his plans for the building’s unknown future. “Some parts [of the building] are just plain gone,” he explained. “It’s obvious there is a fair amount of damage, but until we get a structural engineer assessment, we won’t know if it is a total loss.”
The building is part of the Winona Commercial Historic District, the block that spans Third Street between Franklin and Johnson streets, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. “Right now I am working with some historic preservation folks from the state,” Hoffmann explained. “We’re seeing if it is feasible to save the building.
The local, state and federal groups have incentive to look into these properties, so I’m hoping to work with these programs to save it.”