Man killed in St. Paul apartment fire was 1st Hmong deputy

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The man who died in a St. Paul apartment fire Monday night was a former Ramsey County sheriff's deputy — the first Hmong person to hold that position.

Ka Lee Yang, 49, worked for the sheriff's office for nearly a decade.

"He was an extremely hard worker and had a very positive attitude," Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said Tuesday.

The Ramsey County medical examiner's office determined Ka Lee Yang's death in the Payne-Phalen area was accidental and from smoke inhalation, said St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard.

There were no other injuries in the fire, which was confined to one of eight units at 1615 Sloan St. After seeing billowing black smoke and flames, two workers at a nearby service station ran over to make sure everyone was out.

Matt Peterson, a Parkway BP technician, pushed the buzzers outside the locked building. When tenants came out on their balconies, he shouted that the building was on fire and they needed to get out.

Bob Olson, Parkway BP manager, had been calling 911 and soon joined Peterson. Someone let the men in and they raced up and down the hallway, banging on doors and shouting.

Peterson, 26, and Olson, 41, went in and out of the building two or three times.

One tenant was alone with three young children. Peterson carried a barefoot boy age 2 or 3 who was wearing only shorts to the family's minivan, the father carried another child, and Olson grabbed jackets and blankets for them.

"It got to the point that we could hardly see," Peterson said.
The smoke was thick on the second floor. Still, they pounded on walls and screamed for anyone who might be on that floor, Peterson said. The men paused and listened for anyone who might be calling for help. They said they didn't hear a sound.

When firefighters put out the blaze, they discovered Ka Lee Yang, a second-floor tenant, dead.

"We all wish the best for the family, and we feel really bad for them that there was nothing we could do," Peterson said.

Firefighters found Ka Lee Yang slumped over the rim of a bathtub. The fire had started on his balcony and spread into the living room, Zaccard said. The fire department has not ruled out smoking or cooking, but investigators may never know the exact cause of the fire, Zaccard said.

Residents had reported smelling burned food and hearing the smoke detector go off in Ka Lee Yang's unit, Zaccard said.

Family members have said that Ka Lee Yang's wife had left to pick up their children and that he had been sleeping on the couch. Flames might have blocked his escape, but "we'll never know for sure," Zaccard said.

Ka Lee Yang had told the tenant in the apartment below his, Joyce Darby, he was a heavy sleeper. Darby said she used to see Ka Lee Yang coming home from work about 7 a.m.

The apartment building is too small and too old to have the sprinklers required in newer, larger buildings, Zaccard said. Still, "sprinklers in this building could have made the outcome less tragic," he said.

Ka Lee Yang became a St. Paul police temporary community liaison officer in 1990, working with the Hmong community. He became a St. Paul police officer in May 1991 and a Ramsey County sheriff's deputy in April 1992. He was the fourth Hmong police officer in the state, Fletcher said.

He left the department in 2001 to seek work in the private sector, the sheriff said.

Fletcher said he had many conversations with Ka Lee Yang about his youth and concluded his positive attitude developed from the "very difficult conditions" he had experienced as a boy in Laos.

"As a young teenager, he fought with the Hmong Army against the communists as an ally of the United States," Fletcher said. "He and his family endured a lot of suffering as they fled Laos into Thailand" and he spent time in a refugee camp.

Darby, 56, was in her apartment, on the phone with her daughter Monday night when she said she "kept smelling something. It was like food burning or something. Something icky."

She went upstairs and saw smoke pouring from the top and bottom of Ka Lee Yang's door. Darby pounded on doors in the building, helping make sure other tenants were out.

Outside the building Monday night, Darby said she saw Ka Lee Yang's wife, told her that her unit was on fire and asked where her husband was. She told Darby he was inside.

"I said, 'Are you sure?' " Darby said. "I had a bad feeling right away that he didn't make it."

Other than Ka Lee Yang's and Darby's units, the building is habitable, Zaccard said. Damage was estimated at $150,000, he said. The building is in foreclosure and scheduled to go to auction Feb. 10. A court-appointed receiver has been managing the building.

Ka Lee Yang's death was the first fire fatality in St. Paul since August 2008.

Mara H. Gottfried can be reached at 651-228-5262.


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