The sudden explosion that threw a sleeping apartment complex in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood into fiery chaos one year ago still burns bright at night in Hersi Hassan’s mind.
“I’m awake a lot, thinking there could be a fire at any moment,” said Hassan, 30, who badly fractured his leg after jumping from a second-story window to escape the flames. “And that alone causes me not to sleep or not get quality sleep. I also have this fear that I’m going to jump out of a window.”
Exposed basement bricks are all that remain at the scene of the New Year’s Day fire, which killed three people. But its effects linger for more than a dozen men and women who suffered injuries. Speaking through a translator this week, victims recounted months of hospital stays and physical and psychological trauma that still prevents them from resuming their normal lives.
The fire’s cause was never determined, but a team of attorneys representing the victims continues to pore over the evidence, hunting for its origin. Sgt. Sean McKenna of the Minneapolis Police Department’s arson unit said the cause probably was some kind of gas leak, since an officer responding to a minor theft call in the building before the fire smelled gas as he exited.
“What leaked? Was it an appliance? Was it a line? It remains unknown,” McKenna said. CenterPoint Energy says its found no gas leaks in its system, which only rules out problems up to the building’s gas meter.
When Muqtar Said awoke from a three-month coma in March, the last thing he could remember was struggling to pull his friend Abdiqani Ahmed Adan from the apartment where they had been asleep, through the crumbling building and to the street. The fire burned and disfigured 80 percent of Said’s body as he assisted Adan, who died.
“It’s seared in my mind,” said Said, a truck driver who had gone to bed early that night before a planned 8 a.m. departure on a cross-country delivery.
Said spent three months in the hospital — largely the intensive-care unit — before he was transferred to a home health care facility for a three-month stay. Among other treatments, he required a skin graft on his skull and dialysis three times a week to prevent kidney failure. He received medical insurance through Hennepin County and now survives on Social Security benefits of $20 to $30 a day.
“I’m so dependent on others at this time that even if I wanted to open up a can of soda, I ask someone to help me out,” Said said. “That’s how helpless I feel at this point.”
Ahmed Mire now leaves the lights on when he goes to sleep after repeatedly reliving the memory of being blown from bed on that frigid January morning. The fire seriously damaged his internal organs, resulting in a lost kidney, and left him with a broken leg, a broken arm, burns and frostbite.
Before the fire, he worked at a Chaska potato processing plant and at a restaurant on Lake Street, but he is no longer able to work. “I had plans for life, but now I have nothing,” Mire said. “I have a large family, as well — five children.”
Fatuma Aden, 41, broke both of her legs and injured her back when she jumped from a window to escape. “I think it’s something that’s always going to stay with me for the remainder of my life,” Aden said. “Not just me, but also the other people that suffered the same fate that I did.”
Reassembling the pieces
This past February, the state fire marshal wrote in a report that the fire appears to have been ignited near the second-floor unit where Said and his houseguest, Adan, were staying. Video from a state trooper’s vehicle showed flames emerging from the window of that unit early in the incident, the report said.
Said bristles at the notion that it began in his unit. “It did not even have a kitchen facility,” he said.
The report left open three hypotheses: The houseguest (referred to by an alternate name, Muhammad) tried to operate a nonfunctioning gas heater, natural gas leaked somewhere else and met an ignition source near the unit, or use of the bathroom cracked the freezing-cold sewer piping below the U- shaped toilet trap and freed methane gas into the structure.
McKenna said investigators found no evidence of foul play. None of the injured were hit by ball bearings, nails or other items associated with bomb building, he said, nor did investigators find any unusual chemical containers, fuses or switches among the wreckage.
“I was digging in there for three days in the cold,” McKenna said. “And even talking about this incident, I get cold.”
Once crime has been ruled out, unresolved fire investigations typically are left to private parties for more detailed analysis. Insurance companies that have to pay out often play a large role, but the building’s owner, Garad Nor, lacked general property insurance — putting more onus on the victims to find the cause. Nor did have liability insurance, but that generally isn’t triggered unless someone claims the owner is at fault.
“Something horrible happened to all of these people. And it seems really clear it was no fault of their own,” said Aaron Eken, one of several attorneys for the victims. “We’re working really hard to try to find out why this happened. And depending on what those answers are, we’ll [determine] what our next step is.”
The building, whose remains were demolished after the fire, housed a grocery store on the main floor, in addition to a number of studio-style apartments under 220 square feet with shared bathrooms.
Nor said the income from the building, combined with property tax expenses, was too low to pay for full insurance. He now hopes to construct a small office building on the site, but said he will need a public subsidy to do so because of the lack of insurance.
The adjoining Dar Al Hijrah mosque had to end services after sustaining major damage, including about 18 inches of water in its basement from fire hoses’ spray. The rebuilding process began in October and the mosque hopes to reopen in February, said board chair Abdisalam Adam.
It will host a fundraiser at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at the Brian Coyle Community Center to raise the $125,000 still needed to cover the rehabilitation. About $150,000 has already been collected. “We believe [the money] will come in, because it’s an institution that the people already know,” Adam said. “And many people have been asking, ‘When will you be open?’ and [there’s] kind of a lot of anticipation and eagerness.”
Adam believes the fire is the largest disaster that has struck the Twin Cities Somali community. “I don’t recall anything that’s had that much impact,” he said.