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Minneapolis high-rise fire that killed 5 residents appears to have started by accident

Minneapolis fire chief said heavy snow masked initial fire detection. Investigators will continue to probe exact cause.

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Residents of a building wait in a lobby area.
Residents and loved ones of those affected wait with worry following an early-morning fire on Nov. 27, 2019 that broke out on the 14th floor of a public housing high rise for the elderly in the Cedar-Riverside section of Minneapolis. The fire left five people dead.
Mukhtar Ibrahim | MPR News

Updated: Thursday 10:10 p.m. 

The early morning fire on the 14th floor of a Minneapolis Public Housing Authority building in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood that left five people dead and another four injured Wednesday appears to have started by accident, the fire chief said Wednesday afternoon. 

Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel said Wednesday’s heavy snow initially masked the flames that were later seen lapping 14 to 15 feet out of the windows of the 25-floor building at 630 Cedar Ave. S. when firefighters were called there about 4 a.m.

Fruetel said the fire started in unit 1407 and had been burning for a while by the time firefighters arrived. He said at least two windows had been blown out and winds from Wednesday’s storm fueled the blaze. He repeatedly praised firefighters who confronted a “very chaotic situation” and who ascended 14 floors on foot, which lead one firefighter to be taken to the hospital to be treated for exertion.

The victims have been identified as Jerome Stuart, 59, Nadifa Mohamud, 67, Maryan Mohamed Mohamud, 69, Amatalah Adam, 78 and Tyler Scott Baron, 32. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner said that all five died of smoke inhalation.

The chief said investigators told him, "It's still an active investigation, but they feel it was accidental. They've seen enough that it was accidental. They've been trying to hone in on the exact cause."

Less than nine units of the 191-unit high-rise were too damaged to be inhabited, said Tracey Scott, interim executive director of MPHA. She said MPHA will work with the Red Cross to get those displaced residents into new housing. 

“This is unprecedented in MPHA history,’’ Scott added. “There aren’t words to express the loss.

“We consider them friends and care for them very deeply,” she said. 

Firefighters found the victims in separate units in the building, Fruetel said, adding the fire was contained to the 14th floor. 

He added that he heard loud alarms when he arrived. 

Casper Hill, city of Minneapolis spokesman, said the 1960s-era building has partial sprinkler coverage on the main floor and in the mechanical rooms. The remainder of the building does not and are not required to. 

Many of the residents were evacuated from the building, but some “people sheltered in place” on the upper floors because it was safer, he said.

“It was a very tragic night at the beginning of a holiday season,’’ the chief said. 

Most residents return to building

Following the fire, there were a number of people gathered in a common area on the first floor said Jeff Horwich, Director of Policy and External Affairs for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. The MPHA owns and operates the high-rise.

Around 9:30 a.m., some residents said they were able to return to their apartments.

“This is a property with a large number of immigrant families and a large number of seniors,” Horwich said. “Clearly this is a real tragedy for this community.”

There’s no indication from firefighters or building inspectors of major structural damage, though the 14th floor is uninhabitable and maybe for some time, he said.

Cedar High Apartments has one-bedroom or studio units. Horwich said it’s also unusual for a fire to spread beyond a single unit because the building is concrete, with natural fireproofing that typically keeps a fire from spreading.

While Fruetel said it appeared the fire started by accident, he said investigators still need to do more work. A damage estimate was not immediately known. 

The Red Cross was on-site offering assistance to residents. Mark Steffer, of the Red Cross, said the organization will continue to offer mental health and general health services for residents. He also said many local businesses and restaurants offered help. 

According to data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the building received a point-in-time property score of 95 out of 100 at its last inspection in 2015, but there was no detail on what was specifically inspected.

Black fire damage can be seen from a window of the high rise apartment.
Firefighters were on the scene of a high rise apartment fire at a Minneapolis Public Housing building at 630 Cedar Avenue.
Christine Nguyen | MPR News

Andrew Woodcoch lives on the 23rd floor, and said he was watching TV when suddenly the building’s fire alarms sounded and smoke started billowing in from beneath his apartment door.

He said one of the people who died was a friend.

“Sad. Young guy. I ride my bike with him. Come down and have a cigarette with him. We’d talk Gophers,” Woodcoch said. “I just talked to him yesterday about the Gophers and Wisconsin on Saturday.”

Woodcoch said he tried to escape the fire down the stairwell but was stopped by intense smoke from the fire. He was treated for smoke inhalation at the scene, but declined to be taken to a nearby hospital.

“This is just a quick reminder of what happened on the New Year a few years back, almost six years back,” said Rep. Mohamud Noor who represents House District 60b, referencing a 2014 explosion at a three-story building in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. “It happened in this community, the community is resilient, we will overcome. But I’m sending my prayers to everyone who has been impacted by this.”

Minneapolis City Council member Abdi Warsame toured the 14th floor of the Cedar High Apartments, a 25-floor building hit by fire in the early morning hours. Warsame says the floor is “absolutely gutted” and the scene is “horrendous.”

The building is in a part of a neighborhood that is home to a heavy concentration of Somali immigrants, who have settled there. But Warsame, who is Somali-American, said the building’s occupants are not all Somali.

He said residents were gathering for a meeting after the fire and that organizers have arranged interpreters who speak Somali, Korean, Spanish and Amharic.

The building houses many senior citizens, and Warsame said the main priority is to get them back into their apartments where they can be warm and have access to medicines.

Correction (Nov. 27, 2019): The name of the language Amharic was misstated in a previous version of this story. This version has been corrected and updated. 

Correction (Nov. 28, 2019): One of the victims’ names was misspelled in a previous version. The story is updated.