One year ago, a fire broke out in Tyler Baron’s 14th-floor unit at the Cedar High Apartments. If it had stayed there, everyone in the Minneapolis public housing high-rise probably could have escaped with their lives.
Instead, an improper door seal, a lack of sprinklers and an antiquated stairwell design allowed flames and smoke to spread rapidly, killing Baron and four other residents, according to a yearlong investigation by the Minnesota Fire Marshal’s Office. A sixth resident died months later of COVID-19, with smoke inhalation as a significant factor.
For the families still grieving those lost in the fire on Nov. 27, 2019, they hope the conclusions about what led to the tragedy will prevent future deaths.
“There’s enough unforeseen things in this world that we really can’t prevent, I know this, but there are a lot of things we can,” said David Stuart, who lost his brother Jerome “Jay” Stuart.
Minnesota fire officials suspect there are dozens of similarly vulnerable buildings throughout the state. For decades, they have pushed to require owners of old buildings to upgrade their safety features, including installing sprinkler systems.
Persuading leaders to make those changes retroactively is difficult, said Minnesota Fire Marshal Jim Smith, whose office reviewed the scene. They often meet opposition from trade groups who argue that the changes are too costly.
“So we, unfortunately, many times, have to cut our losses, and say, ‘From this day forward, these are the new codes,’ and we have to live with the fact that there are going to be buildings out there that don’t have scissor stair separations, they don’t have sprinklers,” Smith said.
To understand why people died inside the Cedar High Apartments — and how their deaths could have been prevented — Smith says you have to understand how the fire moved, and how quickly smoke can render a person unconscious.
About 200 people live inside the Cedar High Apartments, run by the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. Many of the residents are elderly or, like Stuart, have disabilities.
Investigators don’t know exactly what started the fire in Baron’s bedroom, but they think it could have been an electrical problem or an accident with a hookah, pipes or lighters. But it happened in the early hours, while many in the building were sleeping.
“Had there been a sprinkler in the bedroom, that sprinkler head would have activated right away, put the fire out,” Smith said. “That’s why we always say the sprinklers would have been, primarily, the lifesaving thing.”
After the fire began, Baron left his apartment to get an extinguisher. The door leading from his apartment to the hallway should have automatically closed tightly behind him, but a seal that had been placed at the bottom prevented that from happening, according to fire investigators.
The door was designed to contain the fire for about one hour.
“The occupant of that apartment could have gotten out. ... People would have evacuated and, with that door closed, we probably would not have seen the loss of life,” Smith said.
Both he and Minneapolis fire officials say codes required the door to automatically close.
It’s unclear who placed the seal on the door. The fire marshal’s office said it doesn’t know. The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority won’t allow employees to do interviews or answer written questions about the fire, citing the advice of legal counsel.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development did not answer questions about whether they knew about the seals or took action regarding them. She said “day-to-day maintenance and operations are the responsibility of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority,” and the authority is required to comply with local codes.
As the fire grew, the window in Baron’s bedroom blew out. A strong wind rushed in, propelling smoke through the open door and into the hallway.
The people on the 14th floor had “maybe a minute, if not two” to evacuate, Smith said.
The fire alarms went off. Four minutes later, at 3:59 a.m., the first firefighters arrived at the building.
State investigators have said they think the alarms “functioned as intended,” though attorneys for some of the victims’ families argue they should have been louder. They are suing MPHA for negligence.
When the first firefighters reached the 14th floor, they found thick, black, turbulent smoke, so dense they couldn’t see the flames. The water pouring out of their hoses turned hot as it hit the floor.
Those “were conditions that the majority of firefighters will never see in their career,” Smith said.
Smoke inhalation overcame five residents.
Firefighters found Baron, 32, in the hallway outside his apartment, a fire extinguisher nearby.
They found Stuart, 59, in his bedroom. Nadifa Mohamud, 67, was in her living room. Amatalah Adam, 78, was in the hallway.
Another woman, Maryan Mohamud, 69, collapsed in a stairwell on the 17th floor while trying to evacuate.
After the sprinklers and after the doors that were supposed to automatically close, “your next line of defense is a clear stairwell,” Smith said.
His office believes the building had an old design feature known as “scissor stairs,” in which both doorways emptied into the same stairwell, where smoke consumed the escape route. They suggested installing a partition.
Attorneys representing some of the victims’ families have focused on a different issue. They believe the stairwell should have had a pressurization system designed to limit the spread of smoke, and that the elevator hoist-way should have had a better ventilation system.
Construction of the Cedar High Apartments was completed in 1970. Many of the safety features highlighted by Smith’s office or the attorneys weren’t required in residential high-rises until years later — and, then, only in new construction or during major remodeling work.
Among priorities for building upgrades, MPHA has listed updating “life/safety requirements,” such as sprinklers. It also lists more than $150 million in “unmet” needs, which it attributes in part to a lack of sufficient federal funding.
While the public debate continues over retrofitting buildings, the families of fire victims mourn and struggle.
Nur Abdullahi awoke early the morning before Thanksgiving 2019 to say his prayers. Islam ran deep in the family of Abdullahi, himself the son of an imam.
Their morning was interrupted by a call alerting them to a fire at the Cedar High Apartments where his father, Salad Mohamud Samatar, then 84, lived.
“We couldn’t know where he was,” Abdullahi recalled.
A woman told them she had seen Samatar with his eyes closed. She thought he was at the hospital, and probably dead.
Samatar was pronounced dead — but he made a recovery after three nights in a coma.
One morning in May, Abdullahi and his father shared breakfast and went on a walk together. As Abdullahi returned home, he received a call saying his father was lying on his back and people didn’t know what happened to him.
“I understood it,” Abdullahi said.
A report from the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office lists Samatar’s cause of death as COVID-19. It also lists “carbon monoxide toxicity [resolved]” from the fire as one of five other “significant conditions.”
From his home in Colorado, David Stuart finds himself thinking frequently about the other families who lost loved ones in the fire — and especially about Baron’s relatives.
“I just cannot imagine the pain that they’re going through,” Stuart said.
He thinks frequently about Jay. He remembers the young boy with the cowlick hair, the glasses that made him look like a professor, and the brilliant mind. “You ask Jay what time it is, he’ll tell you how a watch is built.”
He remembers the little boy who struggled to read social cues and carried that burden with him into adulthood, where he struggled with intimacy but genuinely cared about those around him. His brother found a sense of independence inside the Cedar High Apartments, after decades suffering from epilepsy.
Stuart is trying to focus too on all the ways that loving Jay made him a more compassionate “more full, complete human being” — and how he’ll always carry Jay with him.
“I protected Jay. ... This is where I carry my own pain,” Stuart said. “I knew I would be able to take care of Jay, and I knew it was my responsibility as a brother. By not being able to do that, it’s painful.”