Cigarettes, discreetly smoked indoors and discarded into a corner vent, may be the cause of a fire that will leave the Farmington American Legion closed for several weeks.
The fire occurred just before bar close Sunday morning, while 15 to 20 patrons and employees were still inside the bar. All people inside got out of the building with no injuries reported.
Just before 1 a.m., employees of the Legion started to smell something burning. They began to check over the main level of the building, but found no smoke or flames.
Assistant manager Tony Jerin then went to the door leading to the downstairs stairwell, which leads to the area where all of the electrical and furnace equipment is located. The back door of the building was open, as the band from that evening was loading its equipment. When Jerin opened the downstairs door, he could see the basement was filled with smoke. With the addition of fresh air in the basement, he saw an area of the smoke burst into flames.
The flames started in the northwest corner of the building and shot up through a corner vent, scorching a television and the surrounding walls.
"And then I could hear everybody screaming upstairs," Jerin said.
He ran upstairs and began to yell for people leave the building. Bartender Greg Stanke, though, among those to see the first flames, had already started to clear the bar.
The Farmington Fire Department arrived minutes later. From the page he had received, fire chief Tim Pietsch believed the building to be fully engulfed in flame. Pietsch summoned the Rosemount Fire Department to assist, particularly since Rosemount has a ladder truck and Pietsch thought it may be needed.
After surveying the building, Pietsch sent Farmington's first unit to the basement through the back door. The second unit was sent in through the front door, where firefighters found smoke coming through the floor and the ceiling.
The fire was extinguished in a little more than an hour and firefighters were left in the bitter cold outdoors to roll frozen hoses back onto the trucks. Inside, five Legion staff, one patron and Legion commander Leonard Weisbrich remained to deal with the shock, tears, and questions.
Water covered the floor. The stench of stale smoke hung in the air. The water, heat and gas were turned off. Stanke and Jocelyn Paget ran to a convenience store to get antifreeze to put down drains so waterlines did not freeze.
Farmington fire marshal John Powers arrived just before 3 a.m. to begin his investigation. He identified the corner vent as the origin of the fire.
The cause of the fire, though, is still under investigation. Powers found cigarette butts in the vent, which leads him to believe some patrons may have sneaked a couple of drags, then discarded the remnants down the vent.
Employees who were on duty report they did not smell cigarette smoke at all Saturday night. Since a statewide smoking ban went into effect last October, they say, there have been only a few times a patron has forgotten about the rule and inadvertently lit up, but has immediately taken the cigarette outdoors. When that happens, though, the odor is easy to pick up and the problem is remedied.
Powers points to the fact the vent in question was a return-air vent, which means someone may have hidden the cigarette while it was lit, taken a quick drag, then exhaled the smoke into the vent. Since the return-air vent pulls the airflow down to the basement, the scent of cigarette smoke would have been pulled downstairs and not as readily noticeable, he said.
The cigarette butts are the only items located at the point of origin that Powers could find that would have been a fire-starter.
Cigarette filters contain fiberglass, which means part of the cigarette does not burn. However, with one or two lit cigarettes dropped down into a vent where old paper, dust and other particles were likely present, the scenario makes sense, he said.
There is extensive water damage to the building, but that is good, Pietsch said, because the water came mainly from the Legion's sprinkler system, which kept the fire contained to one corner.
Without that system in place, Powers added, damage to the 36-year-old building would have been much worse.
Not more than two months ago, extensive remodeling was done to the interior of the building. The Legion is fully insured.
It will be several weeks before the Legion is open for business again. Besides the necessary cleanup, several agencies will have to come in to view the damage and sign off on the restoration before the doors can open to business again.
"We've just got to be thankful that everything is like it is," Weisbrich said. "The really important thing is that everyone got out safely and nobody was hurt."