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Fatal U of M fire could bring 'safety sweep' of rental housing
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Several occupants of the building escaped, but Elizabeth Wencl, 20, of Owatonna; Brian R. Heiden, 19, of Racine, Wis.; and Amanda Speckien, 19, of Vadnais Heights, all died of smoke inhalation, the Hennepin County medical examiner's office said. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
Investigators say they don't know yet know what started a fire this weekend that killed three University of Minnesota students. And they are not releasing any details of the investigation. But, in response to the tragedy, Minneapolis officials say they will conduct an inspection sweep of university-area rental properties over the next several weeks.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Mineapolis Fire Chief Rocco Forte says his department will team up with the city's housing inspectors for a thorough inspection of rental properties near the university's Minneapolis campus.

"Make sure that the smoke detector works, make sure that there's an exit plan that they have for getting out of the building, and just make sure that none of the exits are blocked; do the basics. And again, we intend to sweep through there with the fire department and the regulatory services to assure that at least those basics are complied with immediately," he said.

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Image A memorial

The burned building on 15th and Rollins Ave., is owned by Eischens Management.

Without any knowledge of how the fire started, it is impossible to tell if responsibility rests with the students, the landlord, or both.

A spokesman for Eischens Management says the company owns about 100 properties in the university area. City officials say the company is not known to inspectors as a problem landlord with excess violations.

But University of Minnesota Student Legal Services Aid Barb Boysen says she has fielded dozens of complaints from students about Eischens properties. "A significant number of our clients living in Eischens properties have had to complain to the city inspections department to have to get them to come out and inspect. Often they'll find code violaitons and, the city then steps in and tries to compel the owner of those properties to bring it up to code and make the repairs necessary," according to Boysen.

Eischens spokesman Pat Brink held an inpromptu press conference on the steps of Minneapolis City Hall, expressing condolences for the families of the three dead students.

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Image A suggestion for prevention

He denied any negligence on the part of the Eischens company. While he admitted to civil complaints against Eischens Management, he did not give a clear answer regarding the number and nature of the complaints, nor if there are any violations involving the burned house.

Brink said the company is disturbed by the negative attention from the media. "Obviously it's a concern when you're a landlord and you have a number of units, you're put in a light that is unfair. And that, we believe, is the case here. We do believe we're good landlords, and that we do take care of our properties."

Brink said there are smoke detectors on all three floors of the duplex but did not know if they were working. He says sometimes students dismantle smoke detectors while cooking, and forget to put them back into working order.

According to University of Minnesota officials, there is no central registry of landlords who have been cited for violations.

University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks says the university is limited to what it can do to protect students when they live off campus housing.

"Such housing would be off the university campus and would be beyond university jurisdication. But, we can work with the city and the neighborhoods to keep people off lists that might be available to our students if they're not good landlords, if they're cited frequently for violations or if they simply have not treated our students in an appropriate way," he said.

Minneapolis Fire Chief Forte says the tragedy should remind people how important fire prevention is. He urges everyone, especially university students, to make sure their smoke detectors are working and that they have an escape plan.

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