Flashback Friday: Thanksgiving Fire Raged in Downtown Minneapolis 35 Years Ago

November 24, 2017 10:48 AM

It was late on the afternoon of Nov. 25, 1982, and Allan Wold had just finished Thanksgiving dinner.

That's when the then-Minneapolis assistant fire chief got a call that not only changed his holiday plans dramatically, but the look of downtown Minneapolis as well.

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The old Donaldson's Department Store building located on the Nicollet Mall was in the process of being demolished.

A fire had broken out amid the rubble, and it was spreading fast.

"I was shocked when I arrived on the scene," recalls Wold, a 42-year veteran of the department. "The dispatcher said it was a fire in the Donaldson's building. But when I arrived I could see fire in many of the windows of the Northwest Bank Building next door as well.

"There was just so much fire, and we had to find a way to surround it."

That meant getting firefighters downtown as quickly as possible. Clarence Nimmerfroh, the city's fire chief at the time, was out of town. So Wold assumed command.

A call went out over local media asking all Minneapolis off-duty firefighters to report to work.

"We contacted radio and TV stations to get our people to return," remembers then-deputy chief Noel Lutsey. "It was Thanksgiving. And a lot of our people, just like other people, weren't at home. So if you called their house to get them to come into work, they weren't going to be there."

He added, "We put out the word in the media, and that reached a lot of people."

Those people were needed.

The blaze burned most of the night, sending flames shooting hundreds of feet into the air. The fire was visible for miles, and Wold said small pockets of flames were still flaring up and being extinguished on Saturday of that weekend.

Firefighters fought the fire from wherever they had to, including atop nearby buildings.

"It was so hot that metal and chairs and computers inside melted," Wold said.

The fire gutted most of the top floors of the Northwest Bank Building. However, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh's first plane, which was hanging in the lobby, was saved.

Firefighters also managed to keep the flames from spreading to the IDS Center and other nearby buildings. They took out the windows of the skyway connecting to the IDS Center and set up a deluge against the doors.

Ten firefighters required medical attention, but no one died.

Though had the fire occurred on a regular business day, Wold said it might have ended more tragically.

"We were very fortunate," he said. "Had it been a regular work day, we might have had an earlier alarm; but there would have been a lot of people there too. I think it was very lucky everything was closed for Thanksgiving down there."

Investigation indicated arson as the cause of the fire. Two juveniles, ages 12 and 13, were arrested in December 1982.

The damage estimate ranged as high $100 million.

"We were lucky that a lot of suburban fire departments stepped up and helped cover the rest of Minneapolis," Wold said. "Because almost our whole department was downtown."

Today, the Wells Fargo Building and Gaviidae Common stand on the site where fire raged 35 years ago, making for a Thanksgiving weekend those who were there will never forget.

"I think I was there about 17 hours myself," Wold said, "and when I got home, I still had to do all the dishes."

Credits

Frank Rajkowski

Copyright 2017 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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