Fire chief, CenterPoint Energy clash over natural gas as cause of Cedar-Riverside blast

As the investigation began into how the fire started, one body was found in the rubble of the Cedar-Riverside building.

The New Year’s Day apartment fire in Minneapolis claimed its first fatality Thursday as investigators and CenterPoint Energy debated whether natural gas was a potential cause of the explosion that sparked the fire.

Fire Chief John Fruetel said investigators were focusing on natural gas as a likely cause of the explosion that ignited the fire in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, although he said that weeks of investigation likely will be required to determine the cause.

However, a spokeswoman for CenterPoint Energy strongly discounted gas as the culprit.

“We had no natural gas in the area,” said Rebecca Virden, who based her assertion on the utility’s investigation and testing in the area. If the blast were due to were natural gas, Virden added, “the roof would come off, the walls would come out.”

If a gas were involved, she said, “it could be a different type of gas.”

Asked about CenterPoint’s denial, Fruetel said, “I’m just basing it on what my investigators say.”

He said that witness accounts of a natural gas smell and the type of explosion suggest gas was involved. He said that investigators early on ruled out an explosive device, despite the presence of Department of Homeland Security personnel on Wednesday.

At least 14 people were injured, six of them critically. The body of a fire victim was discovered Thursday afternoon as excavating equipment began knocking down walls of the gutted three-story building shared by a grocery and 10 apartments.

Imam Sharif Mohamed from the mosque next door was escorted to the building to pray over the body before it was removed by the Hennepin County medical examiner’s office. The victim has not been identified.

Besides the body found Thursday, one other person remains unaccounted for, authorities said. One of those hospitalized hasn’t yet been identified, Fruetel said.

Help for victims announced

Meanwhile, plans to raise aid for the victims blossomed, including a dedicated bank account, a benefit concert and an offer to the neighbor mosque to share space while its building is repaired.

Family members identified the two people not accounted for as Mrimri Farah, said to be about 60 years old, and Ahmad Ali, 57, who shared an apartment. Ali’s ex-wife Hawo Daqare said they divorced in 2006 but continued to share parenting of their son.

“I feel very bad, but I cannot do anything. Imagine if you lost someone,” she said.

She said Ali lived in Apartment No. 6 on the second floor.

Farah previously served in the U.S. Army and at one point was stationed in Iraq, said Shareef Hassan, a friend. Farah had gone to live in Somalia and came back to live in Minneapolis a couple of months ago.

University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, said that it was treating at least two victims, one in serious condition with broken bones and another in good condition with back pain. They were not identified. A Red Cross official said it had helped two victims and stood ready with housing, food, clothing and mental health counseling for others displaced.

Mosque displaced

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  • Backhoe work stopped when investigators found what is believed to be a victim. Investigators brought in a backhoe to knock down unstable walls in order to search for victims at the scene of Wednesday’s fire on Cedar Ave near 6th Ave. Thursday, January 2, 2013 ] GLEN STUBBE * gstubbe@startribune.com ORG XMIT: MIN1401021559380665

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