FARGO — Ash, ice and slush filled the west end of the Elim Rehab & Care Center parking lot Friday morning, Jan. 24, more than half a day after a fire that displaced 111 senior residents was reported at about 3 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 23.
The air was still heavy with the smell of smoke as three day care teachers from Elim Children’s Center, which is part of the senior care complex, talked about their experiences.
Teacher Kelsey Fraase said the children first smelled something strange.
“It happened at the children’s center,” Fraase said. “We had kids telling us they could smell smoke, and they made up stories that they were smelling s'mores.”
When Fraase went outside, she saw smoke and fire coming from the roof. The children were in danger, she said. She lost no time getting the kids — ages 2 through 5 — to safety in Elim’s main center a few steps away. Some children had to be rushed outside into the cold wearing just T-shirts, as there wasn’t enough time to put on coats, she said.
Coats were later donated by the public school next door, Eagles Elementary, Fraase said.
“I was frightened,” she said, “but was trying to be courageous for the kids. And yes, I was crying, but it was because the kids were safe.”
Angie Haverman’s five students were preparing to go outside to play in the snow, so most had some form of winter clothes already on, she said.
“One child has a father who is a firefighter, and he told the other kids, ‘My dad and his friends are coming to help us. We’re going to be OK,’” Haverman said.
The children found refuge and warmth at Eagles Elementary, and once fire engines arrived, the children began chanting excitedly, “fire truck, fire truck,” said Kelly Anderson, another teacher.
“They see it, but don’t understand what it all meant,” Anderson said. “We know the protocols that were put in place, and we worked together as a team to do whatever needed to be done.”
“Seeing something like this happen in a place I call my second home, a place I volunteered at when I was young, is astounding,” Fraase said.
Since the fire, Bill Ahlfeldt has been looking for two friends who were living at the senior care facility in south Fargo.
“There was no one to call,” Ahlfeldt, a pastor at First Lutheran Church, said Friday while outside of the facility at 3534 S. University Drive. “There was only chaos. I’ve been through one of these years and years before, and I know their evacuation plans are very good, so I had confidence they would get these people to safety if given half a chance.”
His next stop was to rush to Eventide on Eighth Street in Moorhead, he said. A total of 40 Elim residents were sent to Eventide facilities in Fargo and Moorhead, Eventide representative Carrie Carney said.
Elim campus administrator Renee Muhonen said the building was turned back to them around 3:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 24, but insurance adjusters were still at work. It was unclear when Elim would be able to reopen, she said.
The children's center will reopen at a temporary location on Monday, Director Laura Lempe said.
The majority of displaced residents were placed in the Fargo-Moorhead metro area, some were sent to Wahpeton and two were sent to Valley City, Muhonen said.
"All of the local nursing homes really stepped (up) and offered empty beds, and within a few hours we had everybody placed," she said.
All families have also been notified, but friends will still have to call 701-371-5698 or 218-443-4265 for more information.
The American Red Cross also responded to the disaster, offering water, blankets and necessities to the residents.
“It’s a horrible event,” Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said. “We always think our nursing homes are protected, and a couple of firemen were injured. But we had good response, and a response from the whole city, and we had another fire at the same time as well. As you can imagine, that was a real tough one.”
A second fire broke out in a storage facility at 1701 1st Ave. N. minutes after firefighters responded to Elim, according to fire officials. The second fire was quickly contained, and both fires are under investigation.
Eventide wasn’t sure how long the Elim residents will stay, Carney said.
“We had the resources available to help at this time,” Carney said. “We’re a nonprofit and our mission is to help older adults, so we step in and help when we can. Elim would have done the same thing for us, as well.”
Fargo Fire Chief Steve Dirksen said Elim followed protocol by moving residents into the facility's chapel.
“The big issue right away was making sure the residents were in a safe place,” the chief said. “Buildings can be replaced. The Elim staff recognized the issue and acted quickly and moved everyone to safety shortly before we arrived.”
Two firefighters were injured during the fight to put out the blaze that started in an attic, Dirksen said. They were treated at local hospitals and released.
Investigating the cause of the fire will take about a week or more, he said.
Investigators are "digging through where we believe the fire started,” Dirksen said. “We started last night, but with it being dark, you can’t see what you want to.”
Investigators are looking for equipment that could have triggered the fire and assessing the cost of the damage, including that from smoke and water.
Dirksen said health care equipment at the facility, such as oxygen tanks, was not an issue during the fire.
A fire the magnitude of the one at Elim is a dangerous situation for any city, Dirksen said. Elim’s fire was what is known as a four alarm, which means that all available off-duty Fargo firefighters were needed. Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead fire departments all helped extinguish the blaze.