Six apartments destroyed by a fast-burning blaze that killed six people in Minneapolis last week had not been inspected by the city for fire-code violations since at least 1994.
"It's appalling," said Council Member Gary Schiff, whose Ninth Ward includes the site of the blaze, the deadliest Minneapolis fire in 24 years. "This is a basic function of government -- to make sure life safety codes are followed. It begs the question: How many other buildings haven't been inspected in the last 16 years?"
The answer may disturb many apartment residents in Minneapolis. Responding to questions from the Star Tribune, city officials acknowledged Tuesday that 273 buildings containing more than 1,000 apartment units have not been inspected for at least five years.
On Tuesday afternoon, Fire Chief Alex Jackson told Mayor R.T. Rybak and City Council members that he was ordering immediate inspections of all other commercial buildings containing upstairs apartments similar to the East Lake Street property that burned last week. Jackson also is asking the state fire marshal to review and "conduct an investigation if necessary" of the department's code-enforcement efforts at the East Lake property.
State Fire Marshal Jerry Rosendahl said his office will help determine if the city did its job properly, but he said he won't provide advice on the city's overall inspection practices.
"We don't ever do what I would call an audit of a fire inspection program," Rosendahl said.
Two tenants told the Star Tribune that they never heard the smoke alarms go off on the morning of the fire, which started in an apartment above McMahon's Irish Pub. Jackson stressed that investigators have yet to determine how the fire started last week.
City inspectors were hardly strangers to the tavern on the first floor of the property at 3001 E. Lake St. Over the past five years, they dropped by more than 40 times in response to complaints about graffiti, litter, scraggly weeds and other problems.
Fire inspectors ordered safety improvements to the bar in 2005 and in March of this year. In 2008, the bar got a citation because some taps didn't match the kegs. Last year, the property owner paid a $200 fine after getting a citation for dead sidewalk trees and an old awning left in the parking lot. The day before the fire, a city inspector issued a citation because someone sold tobacco products to a minor.
Inspectors need permission
But since 1994, when Minneapolis started tracking inspections electronically, no one from the city has visited the six upstairs apartments to check the smoke detectors and look for other safety hazards, records show. Since 2006, the city received two complaints from tenants. One was upset about a lack of heat, while another griped about bed bugs, cracked ceilings, leaning floors and exposed wiring.
"In these cases, an inspector did go to the property, or try to reach the resident, but an inspector cannot enter a residence without the tenant's permission [unless a warrant is obtained]," city spokesman Matt Laible said Tuesday. "In this case, investigators were not able to get permission, and the complaints were closed."
Barb Johnson, president of the Minneapolis City Council, said the discovery of seven code violations during a March inspection of the bar should have raised safety questions about the whole building.
"What I don't understand is when you inspect a commercial unit and find problems, why wouldn't you immediately inspect the rental units above it?" she said.
Asked if she thought someone had dropped the ball, Johnson responded, "That's what we have to find out."
Jackson disagreed, saying the pub's violations didn't necessarily warrant a larger response.
Jackson said the Lake Street apartments were scheduled for a fire inspection in July, as inspectors catch up with a backlog of work dating to at least 2005, when the fire department took over the job of inspecting apartments from another city agency. The move was expected to increase the frequency of such inspections from once every 15 years to once every five years. Altogether, the department is responsible for inspecting 2,967 rental properties. City officials said 825 buildings were inspected last year.
Too soon to assess blame
"I can't say that anyone dropped the ball in that it was scheduled for inspection," Jackson said. "It's unfortunate that there was a fire in the building that was scheduled for an inspection and that there was a subsequent tragedy."
Some say the city's current policy isn't good enough. In St. Paul, inspectors were required to visit all apartment buildings every two years. But after working through the entire list of properties with at least three units, the city revised its policy in 2007. Now, the most troubled properties are inspected each year, while the best-maintained buildings are on a five-year schedule, according to Steve Zaccard, the St. Paul fire marshal. Zaccard said the city also began inspecting all one- and two-unit dwellings.
Paul Zerby, who served on the City Council from 2002 to 2006, said it's unfortunate Minneapolis can't move faster.
"Even if that interval was reduced to five years, good Lord, that's a long time," Zerby said.
Jackson defended his department.
"Since 2005, we have had a very aggressive, focused inspection program and fire inspectors and firefighters take this very seriously,'' Jackson said.
Mayor R.T. Rybak said it's too early to draw conclusions about the city's inspection record on the East Lake property.
"Having been through complicated investigations before, including the bridge collapse, I have learned you should not react until you have all the information in front of you," Rybak said. "We don't know. There is an urgency to the investigation, as there should be, but I will review all the information, before reacting to partial information."
Randy Furst • email@example.com 612-673-7382