In the subzero stillness of New Year's Day morning, an explosion and fire tore through a century-old building in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, injuring at least 14 people — six critically — and destroying an immigrant-owned grocery store and the 10 apartments above it.
Family members and friends reported that three or four others known to have lived in the apartments have not been located and are feared dead.
Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel said authorities don't know if all the residents are accounted for. Some made it out on their own, some had to be rescued with ladders and witnesses said others jumped from second- and third-floor windows.
Firefighters and investigators haven't been able to enter the building and likely won't until at least Thursday. Building inspectors were at the scene to assess the building's condition and determine whether it's safe to enter, Fruetel said.
It could be days or weeks before a cause is determined, he said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.
The building is a total loss. By midafternoon, burned rafters, still billowing smoke, hung like wooden pickup sticks in the shell of the brick building. The second and third floors had collapsed. More than eight hours after the first report at 8:16 a.m., firefighters still directed two hoses full-force through what was once the roof of the building. Fruetel said crews would be at the scene well into the evening.
The building housed the Otanga grocery store. The apartments above it were apparently all occupied by single men, most of them East African immigrants, a resident said.
Seeking friends, information
Dozens of neighbors, many who live in the Cedar-Riverside towers behind the burned building, crowded into the Brian Coyle Community Center nearby with fire, police and city officials, as well as reporters and camera crews, seeking information.
Omar Hassan approached police Inspector Medaria Arradondo after the news conference. His friend Ahmed Farah Ali lived in the building and hasn't been found. Neither Ali nor his roommate was answering their cellphone. His uncle in Connecticut hadn't heard from him, and he wasn't at Hennepin County Medical Center, where some victims were taken, Hassan said.
No one by that name had been admitted to the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, on Riverside Avenue S., or North Memorial Medical Center, either.
Abdifatah Ahmed, who works at a nearby pharmacy, watched from his Riverside Plaza apartment as the fire burned below.
"You know how lava comes out of a volcano? It was literally spewing out just like that," he said. "It just kept on developing all over the building. … The fire and smoke were taking over the whole entire sky."
Residents from other buildings were watching from nearby sidewalks. Fire officials cordoned off the area at 6th Street and Cedar Avenue S. Streets were slicked with ice from the water used on the fire.
Ismail Adan, 34, a truck driver, has lived in the building since 2002. He said his mother had called him early in the morning and he left to visit her, but a cousin who was staying with him was in the third-floor apartment when the explosion occurred. He said the cousin jumped out of the building and was injured, but he has spoken with him by phone in the hospital.
"He's OK. It's not very serious," Adan said.
Adan said the Red Cross gave him $290 for food and clothing and is helping him find another place to stay. "I am grateful I have my jacket," he said. "I lost everything."
Mohamed Jama said he was in bed in one of the nearby towers when the fire alarm went off. He said he saw a man and a woman jump from windows in the burning building, and saw another man pushed out a window by the force of the fire.
An ambulance took two of the men away, and Jama said one of the men had severe burns on his abdomen. Jama and three other people moved the injured woman from the sidewalk in front of the building to a place across the street. The woman was speaking rapidly in Somali and said her neck hurt and she was unable to move her leg.
"We went to the scene, and it was unbelievable," Jama said. "This generation in Cedar-Riverside has never seen something like this."
Ahmed Muse, one of five owners of the Otanga grocery store, said he arrived at the store at 8 a.m. Wednesday. There was what he called "an electrical shock" in the building, and police were called. When he went outside to talk to the officers, an explosion erupted on the second floor, blowing out the windows and scattering glass on the street below.
At the fire's peak, flames were shooting 20 feet from the building, officials said.
"These are very treacherous conditions," Fruetel said earlier in the day, citing the below-zero temperatures. No firefighters were injured fighting the blaze, he said.
The grocery served halal meats and was popular among the neighborhood's many Somali-American residents. Muse said that it had been there since 1998 and that the building was in good shape and had been remodeled last year.
"Eighty percent of the neighborhood uses that grocery store, and they lost everything," Jama said.
Records show the building was built in 1886 and is permitted for 10 resident rooms. Fruetel said nine of those rooms were occupied. The building is managed by Wadani Properties of Minneapolis, which is owned by Garad Nor.
Nor hurried to the scene after the fire started, then went to check on victims at the hospital. He said he has owned the building since 2005 and did not know the fire's cause.
"This is a disaster," Nor said. "I'm very sorry for this."
For almost three years, from 1969 to 1972, the building was home to the legendary Electric Fetus, an indie record shop. Later, Evenstar Bookstore, which specializes in metaphysical subjects, moved into the site before relocating in the mid-1990s to University Avenue in St. Paul.
Kamaro Ali's Wajadir Grocery & Halal meat is across the street from Otanga grocery. "We have to help each other. If I needed help, they'd help me," she said.
Help for victims
At the news conference, Council Member-elect Abdi Warsame thanked police and firefighters.
"There is no better cause or greater calling than saving human lives, and today they saved a great deal of human life," he said.
"I want the East African community to take leadership, to take ownership of this issue, specifically as it regards helping the victims," he said.
Outgoing Mayor R.T. Rybak agreed that it is "very important for this community to stand together, but it's also very important for this to go beyond the boundaries of Cedar-Riverside," he said. Mayor-elect Betsy Hodges also expressed her concern for the victims.
Rybak said a fund would be set up Thursday to help the victims and urged people to make a donation through the American Red Cross website until then.
Warsame said the Coyle Center had offered the use of its gym for Friday prayers to members of the mosque next to the destroyed building, which had sustained water and smoke damage.