Updated: March 31, 2021 10:28 PM
Created: March 31, 2021 09:02 PM
"It's actually leftover tacos," Tameka Neal says while making dinner. "Really quick and easy."
Neal is at a New Brighton hotel suite with her four kids while she tries to figure out what to do next after a devastating fire at her Forest Lake townhouse.
"I have a lot of... I don't know, I have a million questions," she says. "I don't know where we go from here. We'll figure it out, but moving back in is not an option."
Remnants of the March 19 blaze lie outside the 12th Street townhouse: a charred piece of furniture, burnt picture frames and what appears to be a blackened stove hood.
On one piece of furniture, someone drew four figures standing close to each other — like a family.
"It was so thick with smoke, I could only see parts of the fire that was in the kitchen," said Keon Whittler, who lives next door. "The stove was on fire, I could see the cabinets on fire."
Neal shared photos of the charred interior with 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS. The pictures show debris everywhere, with walls and the ceiling blackened in the kitchen area.
The first alarms went out around 5:30 p.m., authorities say.
"When I arrived, I had smoke coming out the second window bedroom," Forest Lake Assistant Fire Chief Mike Swenson said. "It was a heavy black smoke."
Firefighters believe the fire began in the kitchen. Just beforehand, one of Neal's daughters had put some corn on the stove. Shortly after, there was a mysterious pop — then smoke — and then a frantic call to Neal, who was driving home with her two sons from a dental appointment.
"She was screaming and she was crying, she had already called 911 before she called me," Neal remembers. "I got off the phone with her and called management and said, 'Hey, my house is on fire, get my babies out of there.'"
Both of Neal's young daughters were still inside.
Whittler, who says he heard a loud banging noise, rushed in. Meanwhile, several women were calling for one girl to escape out a window.
"Luckily, the women were out there screaming for her to jump," Whittler said. "So their voices led me to her through the smoke and everything."
He says he was able to lower the youngster out through a second-story window. Scrambling back out, Whittler says he learned the girl's little sister was still inside. So he and a police officer went back in, navigating through smoke so thick, he couldn't see.
"I didn't know how we were getting out — out of a front door, out of a top window — but we were coming out of there," Whittler said. "The police department guy here at the time, he and I were in a panicked search for her. Luckily, I felt a foot in the dark, grabbed her and got out of there."
The children, who were later checked for smoke inhalation, were now safe. But the flames were spreading, threatening the rest of the townhouse.
Swenson was the first firefighter to arrive on the scene. He had with him two Stat-X suppression grenades, a device largely unknown outside the firefighter community.
"This tool is incredible. It basically knocks the fire down and buys us time," Swenson said.
Pointing to a metal loop at the top of the device, he showed us how the grenade works.
"You hold that pin near this lever, take this pin, pull it out and you just throw it into the 'room and contents' fire and walk out and shut the door."
A video shared by Minnetonka-based Fireaway Inc., which makes the grenades, shows how once activated, the device releases an aerosol into an enclosed area.
Fireaway president and CEO Lance Harry says the aerosol contains tiny particles of a potassium compound, which interferes with the combustion process that spreads a fire. He says the device also dampens down the heat inside enclosed spaces, without depleting oxygen inside.
"The particulates of the aerosol interrupt the chain reaction of the fire," Harry said. "When that happens, it slowly starts to reduce the size of the fire by interrupting those continuous chain reactions, and eventually, if you have enough aerosol, and you're able to address the size of the fire, it will suppress it and extinguish it completely."
Swenson says six minutes after he tossed two grenades into the Neals' townhouse, the fire was out.
"By doing that, he was able to knock down the fire," Harry says. "I'm not sure if they were able to extinguish it completely, but certainly, it was contained, and got a lot smaller in the time he deployed the unit to the time the rest of the fire department was able to be on site."
Arriving fire crews used just 50 gallons of water to put the flames out, versus about 1,000 gallons for a fire of this size, he says.
Without the grenade, Swenson believes the entire townhouse might have caught fire.
"Typically a fire, it'll double in size from 30 seconds to a minute," he said. "If I wouldn't have had this and my engine arrives two to three minutes after me, that fire would have gotten into the living room, could've gotten into the rafters and climbed way up. I honestly think the fire would have burned the whole unit."
Fireaway says it's sold about 500,000 of the Stat-X units over the last 15 years.
"It was just amazing that they were able to put it out with just the fire grenades and a little bit of water," Neal adds.
Still, there is a sad irony here.
Neal, a published author, showed us illustrations from some of her children's books. Her latest project is a series of books for kids dealing with traumatic experiences.
"We're planning my book release and 20 minutes later, it's like your life is completely upside down and you're starting over," Neal said.
She is asking for privacy for her two boys, two girls and their dog, also rescued from the flames.
Neal said she hopes to find a new home somewhere in Washington County. The family has no plans to move back into their fire-damaged townhouse.
"That would be way too traumatic for my daughters and for my dog," Neal said. "When we did go back, they couldn't even go in. They were like, 'I'm just going to stay in the car or the neighbor's house. I can't go in there.'"
Meanwhile, the Forest Lake Department now has 10 fire grenades. They cost about $140 each.
"We would've had a whole different story if I didn't have this tool," Swenson said.
The official cause of the fire remains under investigation.
Neal says the blaze took everything, except some clothes and her car. She's started a GoFundMe page to help with costs.
What was saved, Neal emphasizes, is most important: the lives of her children.
"If I'm in a shelter after this, I don't care, because I have my babies. So that's what matters," she said. "They got done eating and I went to the room and I cried because, like, they're really OK. They're little angels and they're OK."
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