WINONA, Minn. - A portion of downtown Winona remained closed late Friday night after a fire destroyed a number of businesses in the heart of the city and displaced several people.
With the smell of smoke still in the air, crews remained on scene in case the blaze reignited.
It was in the early morning hours when residents reported smoke in the buildings located near the corner of 3rd and Center. No one was hurt in the fire, but at least 20 Winona State University students escaped from their apartments while smoke and fire filled the building.
"There was smoke everywhere and you could barely see. So I just used the railings to get down the stairs," said Maggie Ryan, of New Hope.
Ryan, a Winona State University sophomore, had just gone to bed when something woke her up.
"All of a sudden we just heard a pounding on our door," she said.
That pounding was from her neighbor, Abdulla Almomnned, who is from Saudi Arabia, and arrived to Winona two months ago to attend the university.
"You could not see anything," he said of the smoke.
"I can't thank him enough," said Ryan. "He saved my life and my friends. I can't show him enough gratitude."
Officials suspect the fire may have started in the Islamic Center of Winona, which is destroyed, but they are not certain. It is still unclear how this fire started, but investigators don't believe it is arson.
"This is a very welcoming community; this is a very open community. We have no reason to think any different," said Mohamed Elhindi, president of the Islamic Center of Winona.
In fact, Elhindi says a number of churches in the community offered their buildings to him and his fellow worshipers at the Islamic Center while they figure out what's next.
"It is sad to see the place you worship, the place you bring your family, the place you bring your kids. It's hard," said Elhindi as he looked at a hole where the building once stood.
Three buildings were destroyed, but firefighters feared the blaze would engulf the entire block because the buildings are so close together.
Winona State University says 20 students were impacted and they are offering help to students who lost everything. So far at least 10 of those students are now sleeping in dorms, said a spokesperson.
"I don't have anything. I don't have anything," said Almomnned as he shook his head.
But he certainly has plenty of gratitude.
"I can't thank him enough. He saved our daughter. And he saved three other people's daughters and a son," said Keri Ryan, Maggie's mother.
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