The 74-year-old man, who lives alone, rushed to the door and opened it. “I see fire,” he recalled. “Big fire.”
Parts of the ceiling were crashing down in the corridor, thick dust and pieces of debris were swirling about and the sounds of exploding windows were filling the air.
Barefoot and dressed only in his underwear, Ali went back to his apartment, grabbed his overcoat and rushed back into the hall, where he saw two or three others, also looking to escape.
“I was scared,” he said, “really scared.”
The men headed down the interior stairway, confronting more fire that surged as they descended, flames leaping from the stairwell walls. Parts of Ali’s overcoat caught fire, both of his hands were burned and the blaze singed his face.
Outside on the street in the bitter subzero cold, Ali stood in his bare feet. He said a police officer ordered him not to leave, but no one had shoes to give him and no firefighters or ambulance had arrived yet to whisk him away.
He and the others who had made it to safety watched with horror as the fire grew in intensity.
Leaps from windows
Other residents from the third floor peered out their windows facing the street and, one after another, jumped.
He said he saw them as they crashed to the pavement, crying out in pain from broken bones, two men and at least one woman.
Firefighters pulled up and a team headed into the first floor of the grocery store, but they were driven back by the intensity of the fire, described later as “untenable” by Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel.
Other firefighters began readying ladders, connecting hoses and pouring water on the building.
A firefighter helped one resident who stumbled out of the first-floor stairway onto the street, and another firefighter climbed a firetruck ladder and helped a man, who emerged from a window, down to safety.
The blaze was now emitting large clouds of orange-brown smoke that was obliterating the view of the tall apartment buildings of Cedar-Riverside.
Ali said he waited, freezing, for what felt like an hour — although all indications are that it was much less than that — until he was put in an ambulance and rushed to Hennepin County Medical Center.
Wednesday night, he lay in a bed in a burn unit at the medical center, both his hands wrapped in white bandages, a burn mark on the side of his face. There were blisters on the bottoms of his feet.
Even though he admitted he was in some pain, he had a smile on his face and said he was glad to be alive. He was dismissive about his injuries.
“I’m good,” he said as relatives and friends gathered around his bedside.
Ali, who works part time as a driver for Hertz Rental Car, said he did not know how long he will be hospitalized.
Staff writer Rochelle Olson contributed to this report.