ADVERTISEMENT

Investigators brought in a backhoe Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014, to knock down unstable walls in order to search for victims at the scene of Wednesday's fire on Cedar Avenue near 6th Street in Minneapolis.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Body found in rubble of Cedar-Riverside explosion, fire

  • Article by: Randy Furst, Rochelle Olson, Steve Brandt and Paul Walsh
  • Star Tribune
  • January 2, 2014 - 6:51 PM

A body was recovered Thursday afternoon from the wreckage of the three-story Minneapolis apartment building destroyed by a New Year’s Day explosion, fire officials confirmed.

“At approximately 1:55 p.m. Minneapolis Fire Department officials confirmed that one body was discovered in the structure at 516 Cedar Ave. S.,” said a statement by Assistant Fire Chief Chérie A. Penn.

Penn said the victim has been turned over to the Hennepin County medical examiner’s office. She said crews will continue to remove debris until dark and will resume their work Friday morning.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. At a news conference Thursday afternoon, the Minneapolis fire chief said the fire in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood was most likely caused by a natural gas leak.

At least 14 people were injured, six critically in the explosion and fire Wednesday that destroyed an immigrant-owned grocery store and the apartments above it. Two people were not accounted for.

Family members identified them as Mrimri Farah, said to be about 60 years old, and Ahmad Ali, 57. 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 Ali lived in Apartment No. 6 on the second floor.

Fire Chief John Fruetel said Thursday afternoon that witness accounts of a natural gas smell and the explosion strongly suggest that gas was involved.

Fruetel added that the fire began either on the second floor or third floor.

But Fruetel also said that investigators are not certain what caused the fire and they may never be certain. He said four or five investigators have been on the site around the clock, looking for evidence such as debris patterns.

A spokeswoman for the natural gas utility CenterPoint Energy strongly discounted natural gas as a likely cause.

“We had no natural gas in the area,” said Rebecca Virden, basing her information on CenterPoint’s own investigation and testing in the area.

If it were attributed to natural gas, Virden added, “the roof would come off, the walls would come out.”

She offered that if there was a gas involved, “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 officials haven’t determined it was natural gas, but said that is what they’re focused on.

The chief called the scene an active investigation that has early on ruled out any signs of an explosive device. Homeland Security personnel were on the scene in the aftermath of the fire that sent 14 people to hospitals, six in critical condition.

In addition to trying to determine the cause, authorities searched the late-1800s building for two residents still unaccounted for a day later.

2010 inspection problems corrected

Records show that in August 2010, city inspectors found numerous problems throughout the building, including two “illegal” units, inadequate fire escapes and smoke detectors that needed to be replaced in every unit. The inspection also ordered the extermination of mice, insects infesting the second and third floors and pigeons nesting in a room on the third floor.

City inspectors gave the building owner, Garad Nor, about two weeks to fix the problems. Inspectors went back in October 2010 and found more problems, but those were more minor.

By August 2011 another inspection was conducted and the problems inside the building appeared to be fixed. Nor was ordered to remove graffiti from the building, but fire inspectors found no other problems. The most recent inspection of the building, done in October 2012, ordered Nor to remove etched graffiti in the front of the building. Inspectors cited no other problems.

Relief fund for fire victims

A service organization that works on behalf of Somali immigrants said early Thursday that it is setting up a relief fund for those affected by the fire.

Mohamud Noor, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota said “100 percent of donations collected will go to victims and families.” For more information, visit www.csc-mn.org.

“This is a horrible tragedy,” Noor said. “We stand together to help families both in the immediate aftermath and in the days, weeks and months to come.”

Family members and friends reported that three or four others known to have lived in the apartments have not been located and were feared dead.

“We pray that they are found and can resume their lives,” Noor said Thursday. “We come together as Somalis, as East Africans and as Minnesotans to pray for them.”

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. Ten of the victims were taken to Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) for treatment of burns, broken bones and other injuries. Others went to one or two other hospitals.

HCMC reported Thursday afternoon that three victims of the fire remain in critical conditions and six patients are hospitalized in satisfactory condition.

A spokeswoman for University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, said Thursday that the hospital is treating at least two patients from the fire in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. One is in serious condition with broken bones. Another is in good condition with back pain.

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.

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.

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.

Penn said the building was last inspected in 2012 and “there are no outstanding inspection issues for this building.”

Neighbors pick up pieces

Leaders of the mosque and Islamic cultural center next door to the burned building assessed the damage to their space Thursday with Basim Sabri, a property owner who maintains the building for Islamic Civic Society of America & Dar Al-Hijrah.

Sabri said the building sustained water and smoke damage and there was 28 inches of water in the basement. He said he planned to offer a substitute location while the building is repaired, a process he estimated would take at least six months.

Wali Dirie, executive director of the Islamic Civic Society, said he and other leaders rushed to the scene Wednesday when they heard about the fire. They couldn’t get into their building so they watched from a nearby building.

“We couldn’t do anything,” he said. “The firefighters did a great job. They kept it from reaching our building.”

Board chair Abdisalam Adam said several of the residents of the burned apartments attended prayers at the mosque.

“My first concern was … are people safe?”

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, DFL-Minneapolis, stopped by the scene Thursday and said he was there to help, though it is unclear what the federal response would be to such a fire.

Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress, said he had been in the mosque many times.

“It’s really tragic because I feel I’m a part of this mosque a little bit.”

 

Staff writer Brandon Stahl contributed to this report. Randy Furst • 612-673-7382 Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482 Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747 @rochelleolson

© 2014 Star Tribune