Two ‘Persons Of Interest’ Interviewed In Duluth Shul Fire

Duluth’s police and fire chiefs said that the investigation was still ongoing 13 hours after a fire started that destroyed Adas Israel Congregation, but said that two persons of interest were interviewed.

At a Monday afternoon press conference, Police Chief Mike Tusken said that when officers responded to the scene in the early hours of Monday morning, they had contact with two individuals out in the area, getting their names and contact information.

“Today was a follow-up with arson investigator and the ATF to follow that lead,” he said.

Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj said that the biggest concern at the moment was public safety. He said there had been a number of collapses at the site, and once it is shored up, investigators will be able to continue their work. Preliminarily, he said that there were no signs of accelerant used.

“We’re hoping to have that at least stable this evening so we can finish our investigation,” he said. “That’s our timeline right now. We’ll get [the surrounding roads] open as soon as it’s safe for the public.”

Tusken wouldn’t say if the fire was accidental or not.

“We won’t comment on that right now. Again, just be aware that we do all of our due diligence and investigate. And then ultimately, with those facts, we’re going to be able to lead us to a point where we’re going to be able to have not only a determination of the what caused the fire,” he said. “But certainly, if someone is responsible, we want to be able to use that at that time to identify who he is.”

Tusken said they have an idea about the point of origin of the fire, but wasn’t ready to speak to it definitively.

“Point of origin is a critical fact for us to establish in any arson investigation,” he said.

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson sent her condolences to the Adas Israel community.

“I know it’s a very difficult today for you, for your community, and for our community,” she said. “And I want to assure you that your struggle is our struggle.”

Eight Torah scrolls were saved from the basement sanctuary of Adas Israel Congregation, the 118-year-old Modern Orthodox synagogue in Duluth which burned down Monday morning.

Jack Seiler, a congregant at Adas Israel, arrived at the scene as firefighters were being led into the basement. He helped load them into the car of Phil Sher, one of the synagogue’s vice presidents.

The Duluth News Tribune website had photos of firefighters bringing out some items from the building, including one Torah scroll. The paper reported that synagogue leaders had led firefighters to the basement of the synagogue — which is stone — in contrast to the wooden structure on the upper levels. Seiler said that six scrolls were lost in the blaze.

Duluth fire officials haven’t determined what caused a fire that has destroyed Adas Israel Synagogue overnight. Assistant Chief Clint Reff’s statement said the city’s fire marshal office is currently investing the cause and origin of the fire.

When firefighters arrived on the scene, at 2:23 a.m., the first crew on the scene found the storage room on the east side of the building on fire. Reff said that a firefighter was struck by falling debris, rescued from the balcony, and treated and released from St. Luke’s Hospital. According to Duluth TV Station KBJR, neighbors began smelling smoke around 1 a.m.

According to the Reff’s press release at 9:30 a.m., Monday: “A second alarm was called to include additional command staff. At this point, conditions changed, and crews were ordered to exit the building. Upon their exit, a portion of the roof collapsed, and the Department transitioned to defensive operations. At that time the front exterior wall collapsed. The fire continued to grow, which then caused the west wall to collapse.

Ashlee Sherrill, the public information officer for the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives field office in St. Paul said that her agency’s certified fire investigator was on the scene to assist with the investigation.

Exterior archive photo of Adas Israel Congregation in Duluth. (Photo courtesy University of Minnesota Libraries, Nathan and Theresa Berman Upper Midwest Jewish Archives.)

Exterior archive photo of Adas Israel Congregation in Duluth. (Photo courtesy University of Minnesota Libraries, Nathan and Theresa Berman Upper Midwest Jewish Archives.)

“We don’t take over the investigation, but we do partner with local agencies,” she said. “At this point, they are the lead and we are assisting to find the origin and the cause.”

Tusken said: “They have resources beyond our own. We want to make sure we have the most comprehensive response, and we can recognize that with any investigation, even one opportunity to complete it. It’s best certainly if it’s completed now in a timely manner, but that you have as much expertise on the ground as you can.”

The Minneapolis and St. Paul Jewish Federations have started an emergency fund. Adas Israel Congregation is an Orthodox/high Conservative congregation with a membership of 75. Services are lay-led with daily minyans, Saturday morning and holiday services.

Adas Israel was formed in the 1890s by members of the Moses Montefiore congregation, an earlier Orthodox congregation comprised of Lithuanian Jews. By the turn of the 20th century, there were close to 1,500 Jews living in Duluth, most of who were Russian or Eastern European. The building’s cornerstone was laid in 1901.

JCRC Executive Director Steve Hunegs thanked the Duluth fire and police departments for their swift response.

“Our thoughts are with the courageous firefighter who was injured by falling debris while responding to the incident,” he said. “As we approach the Jewish High Holy Days, we offer our full support to our fellow Jewish Duluthians.”

Story will be updated as information becomes available.