Who started the 1982 Minneapolis Thanksgiving Day fire that caused over $232 million in damage?

Who started the 1982 Minneapolis Thanksgiving Day fire that caused over $232 million in damage?

MINNEAPOLIS – When Minnesotans got together in 1982 to enjoy Thanksgiving holidays with their loved ones, two young children were allegedly about to make a $232 million mistake.

The two children, ages 12 and 13, were on their way home from a Thanksgiving evening movie in downtown Minneapolis when they took a detour, authorities later said.

Their adventure leads them through the Radisson Hotel’s demolition site and, eventually, to the then-vacant Donaldson’s Department Store, which they enter by breaking through a plywood door.

When they forced their way inside the building, they allegedly used cigarette lighters and blowtorches to start a fire – a fire that grew to threaten the entire structure of the city.

Their actions created a domino effect of chaos and hardship for the more than 130 firefighters who were called away from their warm homes to the scene. Faced with a threat that could have left the downtown area in shambles, firefighters battled the firestorm for 12 hours.

After the flames died out and a sigh of relief fell upon the city, the next morning the inhabitants awoke to the reality of the devastation.

With snow and ash covering the streets, it was obvious to onlookers that the horizon had changed. The former Donaldson’s Department Store was destroyed, along with the 16-story Northwestern Bank Building. Damage exceeded $75 million ($232 million in 2022 dollars).

While the fire was devastating on many levels, residents were quick to point out that the holiday itself — Thanksgiving — had, in a sense, saved the city from the loss of human life.

If it were any other Thursday, the downtown area would be bustling with holiday workers and shoppers. However, since it was a mass day, firefighters did not have to evacuate many buildings and businesses in the area.

Some firefighters were taken to area hospitals for smoke inhalation, yet the day came and went without any fatalities.

For those who were in the thick of the battle, it was somewhat of a holiday miracle.

The 16-story Northwest National Bank headquarters building was destroyed in the Thanksgiving Day fire of 1982 that devastated downtown Minneapolis.

Image by Star Tribune from Newspapers.com

With the fire about to spread beyond the city block, Assistant Fire Chief Tom Dickinson and his team began to consider what could be done to prevent the fire from destroying the entire downtown area.

One possible scenario they considered was the bombing of the Dayton Building’s interior, which would have created some sort of barrier to contain the fire.

Fortunately, the wind was working in their favour. The Dayton Building was safe.

While firefighters were able to prevent the fire from spreading throughout the skywalk system, windows on the lower level of the IDS Building were shattered. However, Charles Lindbergh’s first plane, which was on display at the Minneapolis suspension system at the time, was saved.

Had it been very windy that evening, firefighters claimed the IDS Building, among others, would no longer stand today.

What happened to the fiery regions?

Newspaper articles in the days and weeks after the Thanksgiving fire paint an interesting story in which officials blamed arson, dismissed arson, and eventually admitted arson was the cause of the fire.

While arson was initially the cause of the fire, officials retracted the claim, maintaining that there was no incentive for someone to cause the fire. The original rumbling of the burn began when witnesses reported that a man was seen fleeing the area in the aftermath of the fire.

In a December 4, 1982 article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minneapolis Fire Department Chief Fire Investigator Jim Carlson said the allegations about a man fleeing the fire were not true. He went on to say that reports that witnesses heard a man say he deserved a reward for starting the fire were also not true.

A December 4, 1982 headline in the Star Tribunes indicates that officials have ruled out arson for profit as the cause of the Thanksgiving fire.
A December 4, 1982 headline in the Star Tribunes indicates that officials have ruled out arson for profit as the cause of the Thanksgiving fire.

Star Tribune headline image from Newspapers.com

Later that month, Carlson and law enforcement learned the truth behind the mystery when they received a call from a group of concerned parents.

In the days leading up to Christmas, with the Thanksgiving Day fire still making headlines and TV news coverage, the 12- and 13-year-old boys responsible for causing the fire come clean to their parents. They claimed to have broken a snow covered barrier and plywood door to enter the Donaldson Building.

Each child faced arson charges related to the incident. While awaiting trial, the 12-year-old was being held in the Hennepin County Jail youth detention center, according to a Dec. 28 article in the Star Tribune. The 13-year-old also remained in detention.

The trials that took place included arguments from both lawyers and finger pointing between the two boys, with each blaming the other. Jon Stewart, the attorney who defended the 12-year-old, argued that his client had been charged based on uncorroborated statements made by the 13-year-old.

“We agree with the state that it was a major fire,” he said, according to the Star Tribune article of December 3, 1982. “But they are still far from any supporting evidence showing that the young man started the fire.”

In the end, the charges against the two boys were dropped. In court affidavits, each said they had lied to the police, making their statements inadmissible in court.


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