Up in smoke: fire destroys students’ apartment

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Sam Stetzer/Winonan

The fire that ravaged downtown Winona on Friday, Sept. 13, left a gaping hole in middle of the town. Even though it has been snuffed out, it has also left a gaping hole in the lives of those affected.

Sterling Cayer, 21, and his roommate Blake Johnson, 21, just started living in Off Center Apartments, the apartment building next to the Islamic Center, this semester. Both were away at the time of the fire, with Cayer at a family wedding in Wisconsin and Johnson at a concert in Ohio.

Both Cayer and Johnson recall the night as being a mess of insanity.

“I had about 6 missed calls from our neighbor Claire Stephen. Apparently she was banging on my door for like 10 minutes,” Johnson said. “Throughout the entire day we were getting calls from people.”

“Yeah, she was trying to make sure we weren’t there,” Cayer said. “I got a ton of calls from people… I got a call around 2:30 in the morning seeing if I was okay, and I was like ‘What are you talking about?’ And that’s how I found out.”

“One thing that was weird was that none of the smoke detectors went off, and none of the sprinklers went off,” Johnson said, hence their neighbor banging on their door.

“Our neighbor actually woke up coughing on smoke,” Cayer said. “She couldn’t see. The smoke was so thick, and she still pounded on our door to make sure we weren’t there.”

The former building housed mostly Winona State University students; however, there were other people living in them as well.

“I didn’t know what to think,” Cayer said. For Johnson, however, it was a completely different experience.

“I’ll be honest, I was at a rock concert. And I get a call from the police investigator,” Johnson said. “She called me, and I was having a mixed drink at the time. And she was just screaming at me, because I for some reason had an alibi. They were like, ‘Hey, you left out of town, why did you leave so early when the fire was happening?

“My first reaction was am I in trouble? Did I do something?” Johnson said.

When Cayer and Johnson finally saw the rubble pile that was their home, they soon realized the devastation that had taken place.

“We didn’t save anything,” said Cayer. “I think I walked out with a folder and he walked out with like a book.”

A small controversy has ensued over the bookstore not giving the students who lost everything, including their textbooks, new books. However, as of the afternoon of Wednesday, Sept. 18, the bookstore has been able to collect enough funds to allow each student one free textbook.

“One is better than none,” Cayer said. “They told us that we could take a loan out. Not like they’re responsible for it… they didn’t have the funds to offer it, so it’s not their fault.”

Johnson said, “We weren’t mad at them, but it was kind of like, ‘ugh.’”

While almost everything was lost, community support was not. Many friends, faculty and community members and organizations, such as the Red Cross, have extended their gracious hand to the victims of this fire.

“I had a lot of friends who text and called me,” Johnson said. “They said, ‘we have an extra place, you know, not much’. But they were willing to open up a spot for us.”

“Actually, my CAST professor,” Johnson said. “She was actually like, ‘if there is anything I can do, you know where I am.’ She was trying to give me some help anywhere she could, so I was actually surprised.”

“Both of our parents helped out, the Red Cross helped out. We got lot of support for everybody,” Cayer said.

For the time being, both Cayer and Johnson are staying at Kirkland Hall. And, even though they have lost much, both said they remain optimistic and thankful for all the help they have received.


Contact Sam at SStetzer12@winona.edu

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