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Duluth resident hailed as hero for alerting others to fire

Flames come from the roof and window openings of an apartment building at 802 East Third Street on Sunday morning. Steve Kuchera /

John Myers

Forum News Service

Sarah Stewart was the first person in her apartment building to smell smoke Sunday morning.

She grabbed her purse and her cat, Rosalee, and ran out — but not before knocking on doors in the building at 802 E. Third St., making sure her neighbors were alerted to the danger.

"I just finished breakfast and at first I thought the smoke smell was coming from my kitchen. But everything was off. ... Eventually I realized it was coming from the (rear) balcony outside," Stewart told the News Tribune on Monday.

She looked outside to see smoke and a small flame coming from what appeared to be an electrical wire on the outside of the building.

"So I called 911 and then started knocking on doors on my side of the building," she said.

She went outside to enter the other half of the eight-plex, but a police officer was already on the scene, so he notified residents on that side.

Within minutes flames were shooting from the roof line, upstairs windows and eventually through the roof itself, pushed by strong winds off Lake Superior. Eight adults were displaced by the fire that was reported at about 10:45 a.m.

Stewart was being praised Monday as a hero for her efforts. One firefighter suffered minor injuries. But all residents and their pets got out of the eight-unit building unscathed, including one person who escaped out a window onto a fire department ladder.

"We haven't been told we could go back in yet. But I don't think there's going to be much left in my apartment. Maybe jewelry or something small?" Stewart said. "I'm just glad everyone got out."

Stewart is a 2010 graduate of UMD, but moved back to the Twin Cities, where she grew up, to attend graduate school. In 2015 she moved back to her adopted hometown to take her current job as the College of St. Scholastica's Multicultural Student Success Coordinator. She also teaches a freshman seminar class.

Stewart is staying with a friend as she sorts out options for a new apartment or moving in with one of the many people who have extended the offer.

Megan Perry-Spears, dean of students at the College of St. Scholastica, started a crowdfunding page Sunday night to replace Stewart's clothes and home furnishings. By Monday afternoon it already had raised more than $5,200, surpassing the goal of $5,000.

"Sarah lives very simply. But she lost everything in the fire and she didn't have renter's insurance," Perry-Spears said.

"She's just such a great person, and this is such a great story of what she did to warn her neighbors, that we needed to do something to help her get back on her feet."

Stewart said she's been overwhelmed by the response to her misfortune, saying she didn't expect and didn't even know about the fundraising effort until her mother called to tell her.

"It's absolutely overwhelming; totally unexpected. There are people (making contributions) from back at UMD; people at Scholastica; some people I don't even know. It's overwhelming to see this kind of love from people in Duluth. I'm not even from here."

One person who donated $25 on the fundraising site posted that "my sister lived in your building — thanks to your quick acting she may still be able to save some of her belongings. I'm so sorry for your loss."

Another person who donated $100 posted that "The community will help you get through this, for that's how Duluth works."

"It's been amazing how the community has come together... Even some of her students, who probably can't afford much, are contributing," Perry-Spears said.

Injured firefighter released from hospital

Duluth fire officials said Monday that the firefighter injured in Sunday’s blaze was discharged from the hospital, is home and is doing fine. The firefighter’s facemask was knocked off by falling debris and they breathed in “super-heated air” in the fire.

Meanwhile, Duluth Fire Marshal Marnie Grondahl said Monday that she has listed the fire as accidental but that she won’t have a specific cause until later in the week. An earlier estimate put damage at $100,000.