Fire dies down, flood continues to overwhelm North Dakota city
Apr. 21, 1997
GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) _ Slowed by streets submerged in icy, sewage-fouled floodwater from the rising Red River, firefighters put out a blaze Sunday after it ravaged parts of three downtown business blocks.
The fire was ``just about out'' Battalion Chief Dick Felton said Sunday after helicopters dumped 2,000-gallon buckets of muddy water on the fire.
``We're still working on little hot spots,'' Felton said.
Between nine and 11 buildings burned, at least six to the ground, Deputy Fire Chief Peter O'Neill said.
``There's not a heck of a lot salvageable'' in any of them, he said.
Police said the Red River, bloated by the melting of the winter's record snow accumulation, had flowed into more than 70 percent of the 10 1/2-square-mile city by Sunday.
Mayor Pat Owens ordered a 24-hour curfew in the most seriously flooded areas. Most of the 50,000 residents were believed to have left their homes, with about 75 percent of the city under a mandatory evacuation order.
She said her own house was among the many that were flooded.
``As we speak, my house is going under,'' she said. ``It may not be totaled. But now I'm in the same bucket with the rest of you.
``If we come through this and we can say we have lost no citizens, no people, we can say we won the battle,'' she said.
Even trucks had trouble navigating the water-filled streets.
``We knew we were deep when our pants started getting wet,'' Edgar Richard said of the trip he and three friends made by truck Sunday morning to a school being used as a collection point for flood evacuees. ``We had to open the door to let water out.''
The city's water treatment plant was flooded Thursday and the last reserves of drinkable water were used up during the night. Officials hoped to distribute water to people who stayed in their homes. The city also had problems with electric, gas and telephone service, and sewers were backing up.
The Red River stood at 53.7 feet at 7 a.m., and the National Weather Service said it would crest Monday at 54 feet and stay at that level for about a week. Flood stage is 28 feet.
Inside some downtown stores, stuffed bears and other toys bobbed on water up to 5 feet deep.
About a block from the fire, Coast Guardsmen checking downtown streets and alleys by boat spotted a couple awaiting rescue on an apartment building fire escape.
The man wore a top hat with his Sunday suit and tie. ``Do we need blankets, quilts and pillows?'' asked 77-year-old Clarence Eide, carrying the linens in his arms.
Eide, a retired Army soldier, was supposed to have left Friday, and had been eating doughnuts and drinking orange soda for the past two days.
``I didn't hear nothing about it,'' he said of the evacuation orders. ``I didn't know we was supposed to have left.''
Engineers hastily constructed a ring dike around United Hospital, the city's only hospital, and a nearby nursing home. National Guard soldiers set up water purification equipment that also was used in the Persian Gulf War.
The downtown fire started Saturday afternoon, and fire trucks were unable to get through the deep water filling the streets.
Early Sunday, they managed to put two city fire trucks on flatbed trucks that could ferry them to the scene, and the nearby Grand Forks Air Force Base sent one huge pumper truck that could navigate the deep water.
The cause of the fire was unknown.
``We were scared last night for a while,'' O'Neill said. ``I've never read a book on a fire like this one.''
Three firefighters were treated for hypothermia on Saturday, which had a low temperature of 23. Twenty people safely fled the building when the fire started.
Elsewhere, police in Fargo, about 75 miles south of Grand Forks, searched for two men who they believe tried to tear down part of a sandbag dike protecting the north part of the city.
About 40 sandbags were stripped from the top of a dike, although the vandalism was not extensive enough to spring a leak, said police Lt. John Sanderson.
The damage was discovered early Sunday after a caller reported one of the two men, who were described as college age, said he wanted to ``blow a hole in the dike,'' Sanderson said.