St. Paul man runs into restaurant fire to save stranger believed to be trapped

Updated: July 16, 2019 10:24 PM

A St. Paul man has some harrowing video and an amazing story to share from a fire that badly damaged a neighborhood institution. 

Justin Dittel and his girlfriend happened to be driving by the Coffee Cup on Rice Street and Arlington Avenue in the North End last Friday when they caught sight of something smoldering. They pulled over, and his girlfriend and dog waited in the car while Dittel went to check it out.


He ran to the back of the building and encountered two boys, one was on the phone calling 911 and the other one was hollering that their Grandpa was trapped in a second floor apartment. 

"It touched a nerve because my grandfather was the most important person I have and he died a few years back," said Dittel. 

Despite the danger, Dittel ran into the burning building. 

"I knew I didn't have much time if I was gonna help someone so I opened the door, let the smoke roll out, took a deep breath and ran upstairs," he said.

He recorded the event through his cell phone and took it with him to document what he saw during the search. 

"I stayed as long as I could until I got to the point I couldn't see. I was feeling my way around, I knew I had to get to the back staircase and when I did there was no way I was going to get out that way, it was already taken over by the fire," he said.

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Dittel said he started to choke and couldn't breathe, so he punched out a window, shattering it, to get some air and the attention of others outside the building. Firefighters hoisted a ladder and pulled the would-be rescuer to safety.

"A firefighter asked if I was alright and I said yes, but there's somebody else in here and you guys need to come in and get the guy," Dittel said.

Dittel met up in the parking lot Monday afternoon with one of the restaurant owners, Amanda Elazaba.  As they both observed the damage, Elazaba said three family members were staying up in the apartment and they called to report the fire. All three made it out safely. 

Elazaba now checked on Dittel, asking "we've been worried about how you're doing!"

Dittel smiled and said, "I'm just glad everybody is okay, I'd do it again given the chance. You can rebuild a building, but you can't rebuild a life."

Dittel was treated at Region's Hospital and sent home to let his right hand heal further from several gashes he suffered when punching the window. 

The Coffee Cup co-owners said it was likely an electrical malfunction that started the fire in the restaurant kitchen. Firefighters said no one was in the restaurant side because it had already closed for the day. The owners said it will take several months to re-build and re-open. 

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Beth McDonough

Copyright 2019 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company


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