Five people died early Wednesday in a fire on the 14th floor of a Minneapolis public housing high rise, and three others were hospitalized, authorities said.
The three-alarm blaze in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood broke out around 4 a.m. in a 24-story building in the 600 block of Cedar Avenue S. near downtown Minneapolis and was extinguished within 30 minutes, the Minneapolis Fire Department said.
“Very tragic night at the beginning of a holiday weekend,” Fire Chief John Fruetel said during a predawn news media briefing outside the complex.
The alarm company that monitors the building alerted the Fire Department, and crews arrived to find flames shooting out of windows on the 14th floor. They encountered heavy smoke as they got to the floor in search of residents.
The 191-unit building for low-income clients is operated by the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) and is at full capacity. Most units have either one or two adult residents, said agency communications director Jeff Horwich. Many of them are of Somali descent, with a smaller number of Korean background, Horwich said.
photoj2Horwich said the 1960s-era building of one-bedroom and studio units has “no history in terms of safety issues to speak of, that I know.”
The building has smoke alarms, but no sprinklers. Building code does not require a building of that age to have a sprinkler system, he said. Eight units on the 14th floor were affected, and the temporarily displaced residents will receive shelter, he said.
The city of Minneapolis does not inspect the building, because it is managed by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, said city spokesman Casper Hill. According to data available on HUD’s website, the building received a score of 95 out of 100 during an inspection conducted in February of 2015. The data didn’t specify why points were deducted, and representatives for HUD did not immediately return calls or emails.
HUD involvement aside, the city has conducted inspections at that building when complaints are submitted. In those situations, from 2012-16, there were violations involving hazardous conditions, and maintenance of fire protection, extinguishing and ventilation equipment. All corrections were made in a matter of days or weeks.
On Wednesday morning, a few fire rigs remained at the scene, along with a van from the Police Department’s crime lab. Windows for one 14th-floor apartment were broken out and the walls visibly charred.
Authorities now turn their attention to how the blaze started. An investigation unit will be formed with investigators from the Fire Department and the Police Department’s arson unit, the mayor’s office said.
As of 9:30 a.m., more than 100 people made up mostly of building residents and a handful of community members gathered in the lobby as firefighters began allowing some back to their apartments. Abdirizak Bihi, a community leader said he was told by police that the victims were three women and two men. Four of them were older Somali-Americans, while the fifth was a younger white man.
Ahmed Hussein was in the building Tuesday night visiting his parents, who are in their 60s and live on the 24th floor. At 3:45 a.m. an alarm went off, and it was accompanied by an electronic voice saying “Fire, fire.” He peeked out the door, and hall was filled with smoke.
“We never thought it would be a big fire,” he said. “As soon as I heard the alarm, I thought it was something small, but that’s when I suspected the issue was not smoke.”
He gathered his parents, and they went down the stairs because the elevators were deactivated. He saw firefighters heading up the stairs while ordering people back into their apartments.
Firefighters said they frequently respond to false alarms at this address. One said it’s challenging to fight a fire in this high rise because of its small confined spaces. They also must confront language barriers when communicating with residents, many of whom are elderly.
Sixth Ward Council Member Abdi Warsame, who represents the area, said at least three of the victims were East African. He declined to give identifying details of the victims. “We kind of know but we’re waiting for the next of kin to be notified,” he said. “It’s frightening, saddening. Most of the people here are seniors or people with disabilities.”
“I think the first responders did a good job, they got everybody down and it could have been a lot worse,” Warsame said. “I got a tour of the 14th floor and it’s just gutted. You wouldn’t recognize it. It’s all burned out… there’s water all over the floor. It turned out bad, it’s tragic, but it could have been a lot worse.”
“Devastating,” Mayor Jacob Frey said in a Facebook posting a few hours after the blaze, which includes a version of his message in Somali. “Keeping the residents, families and friends in our thoughts as they wake to news of a tragedy.”
Frey also expressed gratitude “to our firefighters who rushed toward danger and responded with courage to an incredibly challenging set of circumstances.”
Chief Fruetel said the victims were in different units on the 14th floor. Four were pronounced dead at the scene, and a fifth person was found in a stairwell and died at the hospital, fire officials said.
One person who could not use the stairs to escape had to be helped out from the 13th floor by elevator, fire officials said.
By the time firefighters arrived, “the fire had a pretty good head start on us,” Fruetel said. “It had been burning for a while.”
Along with attacking the floors where the fire was burning, firefighters had to search the 10 floors above, the chief said. One resident on the 21st floor resisted being evacuated, according to the Fire Department.
Three other people “were quickly removed down the stairwell and put on a waiting elevator” and taken by ambulance to a hospital for treatment, the chief said. Their conditions were unknown. One firefighter among the nearly four dozen who responded was being examined for a minor injury, he said.
The fire was reported to be out as of 5:30 a.m., the Fire Department said. There is still no word on how the fire started.
The deadliest fire of the decade occurred in April 2010, when a blaze killed six people in apartments over what was McMahon’s Irish Pub at E. Lake Street and 30th Avenue S. A cause was never nailed down.
In February 2014, five children from the same family died after their north Minneapolis duplex in the 2800 block of Colfax Avenue caught fire. Their father and two other children survived. The cause of the fire was never officially determined, but it appeared to have started near a space heater in the living room.
In October 2015, three children died in a fire in the 2700 block of Penn Avenue N. in Minneapolis. Their mother left the children home alone. Investigators concluded the fire originated in an electric stove.
The city’s deadliest fire on record occurred on Jan. 3, 1940, when 19 died in a blaze at the Marlborough Apartment Hotel, 301 E. 16th St.