5 dead, 3 hurt in ‘devastating’ Minneapolis high-rise fire

Published 2:40 pm Wednesday, November 27, 2019

MINNEAPOLIS — Five people died when a fire broke out on the 14th floor of a public housing high-rise in a heavily immigrant neighborhood of Minneapolis early Wednesday, with one city official describing the aftermath as “horrendous.”

The cause of the blaze in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood — in part of Minneapolis known as Little Mogadishu for the many Somali immigrants who have settled there — wasn’t immediately known.

Abdi Warsame, a City Council member who toured the floor that burned, expressed amazement that more people weren’t killed. The 25-story building caters to seniors and singles, meaning many older residents had to evacuate quickly down many floors.

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“It was absolutely gutted,” said Warsame, who is Somali-American. “It was horrendous.”

Three other people were injured and are being treated at local hospitals; their conditions weren’t immediately known. A firefighter suffered a minor injury.

The fire broke out around 4 a.m. on the 14th floor of the Cedar High Apartments. Fire Chief John Fruetel said firefighters found heavy smoke on the 16th and 17th floors as residents were evacuated through the building’s stairwells.

Fruetel said at a briefing that the fire had a “pretty good head start” by the time firefighters arrived and found heavy fire and high heat. The victims were found in various units on the 14th floor.

“A very tragic night at the beginning of a holiday weekend,” Fruetel said. Mayor Jacob Frey, in a Facebook post in English and Somali, called the fire “devastating.”

Fire officials didn’t immediately identify the victims.

The building is part of a complex informally known as The Cedars. Minneapolis Public Housing Authority spokesman Jeff Horwich said Cedar High has 191 apartments, all one-bedroom or studio units.

Abdirahman Shire, 53, of Minneapolis, said his 74-year-old mother lives alone on the 13th floor. She told him that she was alerted to the fire by the smell of smoke, and that she ran down the stairs to escape.

When she reached the lobby, only six other people were there.

“She said, ‘I open the door and I smelled and I hear the noise and I run,’” Shire said. His mother hadn’t been let back to her apartment by midday, but Shire said someone had provided a meal and “she’s doing good.”

Several family members streamed into the building on Tuesday to check on loved ones, some of them in tears. Shire said that he didn’t know the victims.

Though the building sits in a heavily Somali section of Minneapolis, it’s a melting pot of newer arrivals in the city. When residents gathered after the fire for a meeting, organizers arranged Somali, Korean, Spanish and Oromo interpreters.

Warsame, who is Somali-American, said he knew that one victim was a Somali grandmother. Many of the residents’ children and grandchildren flocked to the building to check on their family members, he said.

Fire spokesman Bryan Tyner said four of the victims were located on the 14th floor and another in a stairwell, and it was unknown if any of them were related or came from the same unit.

Floors above the 14th were being checked for habitability. Horwich said the 14th floor would be uninhabitable for some time, but it was possible residents of the 15th floor and above could return as early as later Wednesday.

Horwich said the Red Cross was on the scene to offer help and counseling to residents.

Horwich said it’s unusual for fire to spread in the authority’s buildings, including Cedar High.

“The buildings are made of concrete, natural fireproofing between units that typically keeps a fire from spreading,” he said. “Clearly, it did spread to multiple units.”

Horwich told the Star Tribune that the building had smoke detectors but wasn’t required to have a sprinkler system due to its age. He referred follow-up questions to another Housing Authority official who did not immediately respond to messages.