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Cedar-Riverside fire survivors recount harrowing moments

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Fire victim Abdi Qobey
Abdi Qobey recounts to reporters how he escaped his burning Cedar Riverside apartment by jumping out of a window Friday, Jan. 3, 2014 at Hennepin County Medical Center, where he is being treated for injuries to his back and legs.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

Abdi Qobey was watching television in bed when the wall of his apartment suddenly flew over his head. He ran to the hall to find one of his neighbors on fire.

Turning to grab a few possessions, he couldn't see anything but the window. So he ran to it. He was trapped in the New Year's Day building explosion and fire in Minneapolis' Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. The building was coming down around him.

"I looked downstairs," he recalled. "I see one officer in the street. He says, 'Sir, the firefighters have not come yet. There's no other choice. You have to jump.'" Qobey, 59, jumped from the second floor.

A couple of people helped him hobble to the nearby Palmers Bar. There, he was soon joined by other refugees of the fire who made the same critical leap to safety.

Qobey is at Hennepin County Medical Center with two broken legs, but thankful to the officer who may have saved his life.

Fire officials are continuing to investigate the blast, which killed two and injured 14 others. Three of the most critically injured are at HCMC, where doctors say the level of burns are "catastrophic." 

Speaking publicly for the first time, Qobey and other survivors of Wednesday's deadly apartment building fire described a harrowing scene.

Fire victim Hersi Hassan
Hersi Hassan talks to reporters Friday, Jan. 3, 2014 at Hennepin County Medical Center about his experience surviving a fire that destroyed his apartment in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood on New Year's Day. Fourteen victims were hospitalized, and two bodies have been recovered from the wreckage.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

Ali Jama was visiting friends and sleeping in a second floor apartment when he heard a loud boom. The windows of the apartment shattered.

"When the windows were blown out, I took a look downstairs," said Jama, 41, a truck driver from North Carolina. He tried to go down the stairs, but there was too much smoke. He kicked the rest of the window glass.

Perched in the window opening, he took stock of what he was about to do. "I thought I might die," he said. "I prayed, but I thought I was dying." He jumped and hit the ground two floors below. He broke both legs and several ribs, and says his two friends were also badly hurt when they jumped out the window. They also survived.

Fire officials said Thursday they were leaning toward a gas explosion as a likely cause, but CenterPoint Energy says no gas leak was found in its system. MPR News interviewed four victims. None could recall any smell of natural gas.

On Friday afternoon, firefighters recovered a second body from the rubble. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner's office identified the first victim as Ahmed Farah Ali, 57.

Fire officials say they believe everyone who was in the building has been accounted for.

Hersi Hassan jumped from a second floor window with his two sisters. They all survived, though Hassan is nursing broken bones and frostbite. "I was sitting on the ice for 45 minutes," Hassan, 29, said through a hospital interpreter.

He's worried about his recovery - and what happens once he leaves the hospital.

"We don't have housing. We don't have money. We don't have work," he said. "We lost everything."

Community organizer Mohamud Noor spent his morning visiting two fire victims at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview. He says it'll be a long time until they are fully healed.

"They'll need housing, emotional support, psychological support, and also legal support," Noor said. "We can advocate for their rights, see where things went wrong, and help them through the recovery process."

Noor's cell phone has been ringing nonstop with people wanting to help.

The owners of the Franklin Street Bakery visited him at the Brian Coyle community center this morning, offering to bring in bread. One of their employees was hurt in the fire.

Everyone can pitch in, in ways big and small, said bakery co-owner Wayne Kostroski. "It's remarkable. When these things happen, everyone looks at each other and asks, how can they help?" he said. "That's how it should be."

Relief funds have been set up through Pillsbury United Communities and the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota. People can also make contributions at Wells Fargo Bank.

• Body of second victim found
• Authorities: Body found after Cedar-Riverside fire
• Photos: Cleanup, investigation continue
• Previously: Explosion, fire rock neighborhood
• Photos: Firefighters worked in brutal conditions