ALEXANDRIA, Minn. -- It was somewhere between 4:30 and 5 a.m., and William Woodard was just about to go to sleep after working the late shift. Tami Johnson was dressed and ready to go to work. Plenty of others were sound asleep in their apartments above downtown Alexandria’s iconic shops when fire broke out early Tuesday morning, Feb. 25.

“I heard a noise in the walls and a weird smell and smoke in the apartment,” said Woodard, who works at Douglas Machine and lived directly above Raaper’s Eatery and Ale. “I woke up my roommate and said, ‘Call 911.’”

His roommate, Mike Chezem, said he was dead asleep.

“I jumped out of bed right away,” he said. “I said, ‘Really?’ He said yes. So I called 911.”

Woodard, trying to track down the source of the smoke, said it seemed to be coming from a small locked utility closet outside his apartment. He took a hammer to the deadbolt and broke into it while Chezem called for help.

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Woodard said he saw some small flames inside the closet and dumped bowls of water on them until growing clouds of smoke drove him back.

About two dozen people lived above businesses in that section of Broadway. As smoke spread and neighbors pounded on each other’s doors, firefighters and police officers rushed to evacuate residents and their pets. Stunned residents fled with what they were wearing into the dark, freezing morning, leaving behind car keys, cell phones, eyeglasses, and, in one case, a pair of false teeth.

Woodard grabbed a lined flannel shirt before heading out, but Chezem left only in his pajama bottoms, without any socks.

They joined their neighbors at the Alexandria Fire Hall on Tuesday morning, some tearfully huddled in blankets while they sat at tables, waiting to speak to Red Cross officials. By mid-morning, Chezem sported orange socks.

“Jail socks,” he said. He also wore a donated gray T-shirt.

Woodard said he lost “thousands” of dollars worth of belongings, including a coin collection and a collection of concert shirts from all the concerts he’d been to, like Alice Cooper, Judas Priest and The Eagles.

“Now all I have left is memories,” he said.

Narrow rescue

One of their neighbors, Carlos Lopez, who lived above Raaper’s in No. 4 for three years, described a harrowing escape from the fire.

A light sleeper, he awoke to the sound of someone running in the hallway and smelled something burning. He woke up his girlfriend and they threw on some clothes.

By the time he tried to open the front door of his apartment, the doorknob was already hot. He opened it anyway but couldn’t see a path out of the building.

“It was hot going to the left, hot going to the right,” he said. “The smoke was very dark.”

Back in their apartment, they opened a window for fresh air and saw flashlights shining outside in the dark.

“We yelled for help,” he said, but it seemed that whoever held the flashlights was having trouble locating their voices. Lopez and his girlfriend then grabbed their cellphones and turned on the flashlight function, guiding rescuers to their window. Firefighters ran a ladder to their window and the pair were able to climb down the ladder unassisted.

“We lost everything,” he said. “Just what we have on, that’s it.”

Not so fast

Johnson, the other person who was awake when the fire started, had put her McDonald’s uniform on and was ready to go to work when she noticed haze in her apartment and her 9-month-old cat, Cargo, acting a little goofy. It was about 4:45 a.m., she said.

She thought maybe an outlet by the bed was smoking. When she realized it was much more serious, she ran next door and said, “I pounded and pounded” until her neighbor groggily came to the door.

“Then I went to the others, above Little Darlings,” she said, but nobody answered there.

Johnson went back to her apartment to grab Cargo, then struggled to see in the the dark, smoky stairwell (there were 24 steps, she said), as she went to open the door for firefighters.

They were already there by the time she got downstairs. She told them what she knew about who lived upstairs and then stayed outside, as the firefighters didn’t want her going back to her apartment.

A firefighter loaned her his phone so she could call McDonald’s to tell them what had happened.

“My friends all came running to help,” she said. “We’re a tight community. They were all hugging on me.”

Johnson couldn’t recall a smoke alarm going off, which she thought was odd, since her smoke alarm was so touchy that even a burned piece of toast would set it off.

There were no reported injuries, and the Red Cross was providing temporary lodging for those who lost their homes as well as blankets and toiletries, said Cyrese Kragenbring, regional duty officer for the disaster response organization.

Several displaced residents said they didn’t know where they were going to live long term. One voiced a desire for a shower. But then, he remembered, he had no clean clothes to change into.