Fire damages apartments: Citizens' quick action helps save building residents

WILLMAR -- Rudy Vigil, manager of WRAC-8, was in his studio doing paperwork Friday morning when he glanced up and saw smoke pouring from the second floor of the building across the street.

WILLMAR -- Rudy Vigil, manager of WRAC-8, was in his studio doing paperwork Friday morning when he glanced up and saw smoke pouring from the second floor of the building across the street.

"It was just a billow of fire coming from the apartments," he said.

Vigil stopped long enough to dial 911. Then he and Steve Peppin, owner of Pep's Sports Barber Shop, dashed into the building.

"We both ran right upstairs and started pounding on doors," Vigil said.

Jamin Johnson-Schneider and Dale Heveron were close on their heels.


Their actions may have helped save the lives of several second-floor apartment residents -- who were home when the fire broke out at around 10 a.m.

Nine people -- including a 12-year-old and her younger sibling -- were evacuated, said Willmar Fire Chief Marv Calvin. Peppin later was taken by ambulance to Rice Memorial Hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation.

"Thankfully we got some citizens that were able to make some rescues," Calvin said.

Said Vigil: "We did what anyone else would have done."

Calvin said the fire apparently broke out in one of the apartments.

"The fire was isolated to one apartment. It did extend up into the ceiling," he said.

A state fire marshal was en route to Willmar to investigate the fire, Calvin said. The Willmar fire and police departments are assisting with the investigation. More information about the cause of the fire is expected to be released on Monday.

Calvin said rescuers told authorities that they heard no smoke alarms in the building. Fire crews reported hearing a smoke alarm in one of the apartments but the building had no central fire alarm system, he said.


A four-block area of the downtown district, from Becker Avenue to Benson Avenue and from Third to Fifth Streets, was cordoned off for three hours by police and sheriff's office squad cars and rescue squad trucks. The area was filled with fire trucks, ambulances, rescue vehicles and squad cars. Crowds gathered on the sidewalks and in doorways to watch.

The Willmar Fire Department was assisted by firefighters from the Spicer, Kandiyohi, Pennock and Benson fire departments.

That response was warranted, Calvin said, because a downtown fire can quickly skip between the spaces in large buildings. In addition to protecting lives and property, the extra help was needed to ensure firefighter safety, he said.

The building, known to most as the Bonde Building, is two stories and covers about one-quarter of a city block.

"It takes a lot of people to cover such a large, commercial building," Calvin said. "We want to protect the downtown. It's important to the city of Willmar."

The Bonde Building contains nine upstairs apartments above commercial space. The building is owned by Princess Properties of Woodbury. It was previously owned by Van Heuveln Properties, which still manages the building.

Six families were displaced by the fire.

Vigil, who was a volunteer with the Willmar Fire Department for almost 10 years, said the hall was filling with smoke by the time he and Peppin reached the upstairs.


"I can't even remember saying goodbye to 911. I just ran," he said.

At least one person was asleep when Vigil and Peppin starting pounding on apartment doors. Vigil said he had to kick in a door at one of the apartments.

He and Peppin, along with Willmar Police Officer Frank Hanson, who also was one of the first on the scene, managed to get most of the apartments evacuated before the fire trucks arrived.

By then, the rescuers were forced to leave the building, Vigil said. "We didn't have any choice. There was so much smoke coming out."

Two more residents were rescued by firefighters from the Pennock and Kandiyohi departments, Calvin said.

Representatives from the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and the United Way of Kandiyohi responded quickly to the scene. The Salvation Army was feeding the firefighters from its canteen truck and was also providing for the immediate needs of the displaced residents.

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