Agency cited sprinkler need months before high-rise fire

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 for more than four hours Wednesday. The 14th-floor blaze killed five and injured three others. The cause is under investigation.
Christine Nguyen | MPR News

The agency that manages public housing in Minneapolis noted a need for sprinklers in older high-rise apartments months before a massive fire broke out in a 50-year-old building, leaving five people dead from smoke inhalation.

Although the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority didn't specifically budget for high-rise sprinklers in a plan approved in September, the document does list them as a future priority.

"Additionally, as building codes have evolved, we need to address increased life/safety requirements such as retrofitting our highrise buildings with sprinkler systems," the plan says. "MPHA has made infrastructure/building systems a priority and will target these types of improvements with its limited Capital Fund resources until major reinvestment opportunities materialize."

Minneapolis Public Housing Authority spokesman Jeff Horwich declined to elaborate Friday on the reference to sprinklers in the plan. He said the document reflects long-term aspirations, not necessarily current available funding.

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The fire Wednesday came just days before the building was to be inspected by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It was not immediately clear if that routine inspection will go on Monday as planned.

Authorities on Friday still had not released the cause of the fire, which started around 4 a.m. on the 14th floor of the building in the heart of an immigrant neighborhood. Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel told reporters Wednesday that investigators believe the fire was an accident, but he didn't explain why.

The victims have been identified as Tyler Baron, 32; Jerome Stewart, 59; Nadifa Mohamud, 67; Maryan Mohamed Mohamud, 69; and Amatalah Adam, 78. Three others were injured.

According to the city, the main floor and lower mechanical rooms of the 25-floor building known as Cedar High Apartments had partial sprinkler coverage, but the rest of the building did not have a sprinkler system.

HUD says the building was built in January 1970, when sprinklers weren't required by law.

Jen Longaecker, a spokeswoman for the state fire marshal, said building codes that addressed sprinkler systems existed at the local level in the 1960s. All local building codes were replaced by the state building code in 1972. But there were no state requirements for sprinkler systems in high-rise buildings until the 1979 Uniform Building Code went into effect in late 1980.

Longaecker said building code requirements apply to new construction and are not retroactive for existing buildings. Buildings like Cedar High Apartments would not need to improve their fire protection unless there is substantial remodeling or a change the type of occupancy.

When asked Wednesday whether sprinklers might have helped control the fire, Fruetel said: "Sprinklers will always make a difference in a building."

Shane Gray, a retired fire chief who is president of the National Fire Sprinklers Association, told KSTP-TV that states and cities need to look at making retrofitting high-rise buildings mandatory.

"There is an extra cost to retrofitting older buildings with sprinklers, but there is a way to get it done too," Gray said. "You can offer tax credits and deductions and phase it in over a number of years to help the owners of these buildings afford it."

When it comes to public housing inspections, the city said those are handled by federal agencies, but the city inspected the building to respond to specific complaints. City records showed just a few inspections in recent years. The most recent, in 2016, was for failure to clean exhaust hoods "contaminated by grease-laden vapors" every six months; the inspector's report said the last record of maintenance was four years earlier.

HUD last inspected the building in February 2015 and gave it a physical inspection score of 95 out of 100. According to a redacted summary of the inspection report, inspectors noted that a chute in the trash collection area didn't latch properly, and that two units showed evidence of a cockroach infestation.

No problems were noted with fire alarm or sprinkler systems, according to the report. The complex that includes the high-rise is scheduled for its next routine inspection on Monday. It's unclear if that inspection will go forward as planned.