Death almost came for Fargo firefighters battling downtown arson 22 years ago
Mike Hendrickson and Jesse Schmidt were among the first to arrive at Tropics nightclub in downtown Fargo after it was set ablaze in April 2000.
FARGO — Virtually every time firefighters Mike Hendrickson and Jesse Schmidt pass by the empty lot on the west side of Broadway in downtown Fargo, they think about the day nearly 22 years ago they almost died there on the job.
Reflecting on the arson fire at the Tropics nightclub on Sunday, April 30, 2000, can prompt a visceral response.
“Even discussing it … makes the hair on my arms still stand up,” Hendrickson said.
The two men, among the first on scene at 58 Broadway in the pre-dawn hours, came within a few feet of being crushed by a massive boiler that fell through the floor above them.
They and others also escaped a backdraft that broke windows and sent flames rolling out onto Broadway.
“We were very lucky,” Schmidt said.
It was the worst fire in downtown Fargo since 1893, when blocks of wooden buildings in the business district and many homes were burned.
The Tropics fire caused more than $2 million in damage, destroying three buildings and leaving gutted facades on almost a half-block of Broadway between NP and First Avenues. In addition to the nightclub, the fire destroyed or damaged about a dozen neighboring businesses.
The void left on Broadway between the old Fargo National Bank building, now home to Fort Noks bar, and the Juice It Smoothie bar to the north, remains more than two decades later.
Tropics co-owner, John Michael “Mike” Maurer, then 30, admitted setting the fire in an attempt to cover up financial problems.
News reports in The Forum in the weeks and months that followed focused on the criminal aspect of the fire and its devastating impact on businesses, but didn’t elaborate on the firefighting efforts.
Hendrickson and Schmidt can remember those details like it was yesterday.
No false alarm
Maurer reported arson attempts at Tropics even before the April 2000 fire.
He told police in January of that year that someone threw a makeshift Molotov cocktail inside but the device did not ignite.
In March, Mauer claimed he fought off two men who broke into the club and left a leaking gas can inside.
There was no false alarm with the April 30 fire.
At the downtown fire station not even a block away, the alert sounded at 5:39 a.m., waking up firefighters there, including Hendrickson and Schmidt.
Hendrickson, now 51 and a captain, had been a firefighter for about four years. Schmidt, now 50 and a captain, had been on the job only a few months.
Smoke alarms had gone off at Quizno’s Classic Subs a few doors down from Tropics and when crews arrived, it was clear to them the fire had been burning, undetected, for some time.
Hendrickson said it’s not known why alarms at Tropics didn’t go off, or if they were even in place. It’s possible they weren’t required under code from when the building was last renovated, he said.
The two busted their way in through a security door on the north side, in the alley between Tropics and what was then Lauerman’s bar.
Schmidt said the visibility was OK at first, and along the stairway leading upstairs, they could see a clear burn pattern.
They brought hoses to what they thought was the second floor but was actually the mezzanine where the bar’s office was located.
“No matter what we did, our line was just too small to fight that amount of fire,” Schmidt said.
The room 'lit up'
Hendrickson and Schmidt kept at it until their air supplies ran out and they had to go for refills. By then, additional crews had arrived to spray water from other vantage points.
The two went back in, and their job this time was to confine the fire to the southwest corner of the main floor.
They worked their way back, Hendrickson said, trying to pick their way through pool tables and bar stools in the now heavy smoke.
Suddenly came a sound they’d never heard before. A steel I-beam above was warping and twisting as it failed, they would later learn.
They stopped in their tracks after hearing an emergency warning about it over their radios.
Next came a rumble “like a freight train,” Hendrickson said, and they caught a glimpse of a massive object falling just a few feet in front of them.
“The floor actually bounced,” he said, knocking them off their feet.
A massive boiler from the mechanical room above had fallen through the second floor, crashing through the main floor and into the basement.
Fresh air rushing up from the basement through the hole in the floor gave the fire a fresh blast of oxygen. That, along with the intense heat, was enough to ignite smoke particles in the air.
“That’s when the whole room basically lit up,” Hendrickson said.
Hendrickson suffered a burn to his right arm and the side of his face. He also had second-degree radiant heat burns to both corneas in his eyes — an injury that fortunately healed quickly.
Had either of them seen a fireball like that before?
“Only in videos,” Hendrickson said.
It wasn't long before the blame pointed to Maurer.
Police arrested him early the next day, less than 24 hours after the fire started, at a local hotel.
Maurer claimed he’d fought off an intruder just before the fire started, but police noticed he didn’t have any bruises or marks from a scuffle.
They took into account his previous, unsubstantiated arson attempt reports and learned he’d recently asked his landlord whether the building was insured.
They discovered he’d been involved in a failed internet business and owed thousands of dollars in back rent, and that he’d bought a gas can and gas the previous night.
Later, they also found out the nightclub had been struggling to keep up with conditions of its liquor license.
Maurer was brought to police headquarters for questioning and while giving a written statement, asked for a glass of water.
In the short time the officer was out of the room, Maurer used a ballpoint pen to stab himself in the eye in an apparent suicide attempt, said then Fargo Police Chief Chris Magnus.
Maurer was taken to a hospital, and was formally charged with arson, endangering by fire or explosion and releasing destructive forces. He was discharged from the hospital and taken to jail the following week.
Maurer acknowledged setting the fire, but said he simply planned to burn the nightclub's records. He pleaded guilty to arson and the other charges were dropped.
He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with five years suspended, and five years of supervised probation.
More than 10 months after the fire, in March 2001, with Maurer hoping to negotiate a lesser sentence, he tried to implicate his business partner in the crime.
Trevor Trautman, then 27, of West Fargo, was charged with felony conspiracy to commit arson.
But a few months later, prosecutors requested the charge be dropped because of inconsistencies in Maurer’s statements.
"We no longer had faith in the credibility of his story," said Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick, who was just two years into the job at the time. Burdick recently announced he will retire at the end of this year.
Maurer was released from prison in 2004 and moved to Kentucky, where he finished out his probation.
When reached by The Forum at the time, he declined to comment and said, "Don't you ever call here again."
What will become of the vacant lot where Tropics once stood is still up in the air.
In 2015, R.D. Offutt Co. bought the lot and the old Fargo National Bank building for a new RDO project.
However, Jim Buus with JBC Commercial Real Estate said RDO abandoned those plans and opted to be part of the Block 9 project instead, where its headquarters now stand.
Buus said he represents an investment group that owns the property now.
While the group has long-range plans to build on the “last undeveloped spot on Broadway,” Buus said it’s still years down the road.
On that last day of April 2000, more than 50 firefighters battled the Tropics fire, pouring an estimated 2 million gallons of water on the site, according to Forum reports.
By week’s end, a 28-member team from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was assisting city police and fire investigators.
Tom Hahn, who investigated the 1995 federal courthouse bombing in Oklahoma City and the 1996 Olympic Games bombing in Atlanta, was on scene. A dog specializing in sniffing out accelerants was even brought in.
In addition to the Tropics bar in the brick building, the Quizno's restaurant, One on One Fitness Center and Great Plains Surgical business in the adjoining building were destroyed.
Other neighboring businesses, Crown Jewels and attorney Jeff Bredahl’s office in the old Fargo National bank building, along with Catherine’s Collectibles at 609 NP Ave., where NoBull Smokehouse now stands, suffered smoke and water damage.
After a long and difficult process of salvage and cleanup and working through insurance matters, many of the businesses reopened elsewhere. The impact of the fire on those businesses, and the entire downtown area, was substantial.
The potential for loss of life from the fire was incalculable.
Schmidt, who actually attended West Fargo High School with Maurer, said people sometimes get put in situations where they make poor decisions.
“He was trying to save his business through insurance fraud and we got caught up in it,” Schmidt said.
It’s a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks they can try to erase a problem by setting a fire.
“One person's bad decision can change the landscape of the city,” Hendrickson said.