At least in part because of its age, the half-century-old high-rise in the Cedar High Apartments complex had no sprinklers on the upper floors, where a deadly fire broke out Wednesday morning.
And in the hours after the blaze, as family members tended to their loved ones’ funeral arrangements, Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel suggested sprinklers could have helped.
“Sprinklers will always make a difference in a building,” the chief said during an afternoon news conference.
Jeff Horwich, a spokesman for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, which runs the building, declined to say Wednesday whether they would consider adding them in the future.
It’s unclear what started the fire, but Fruetel said officials suspect it was an accident. An alarm company that monitors the building alerted the fire department, and when firefighters arrived around 4 a.m., it appeared as if the fire had been burning for awhile, the chief said. It was hot enough to burst the windows, causing a “blast-furnace” scenario, he added.
The 25-floor building’s history goes back decades. The Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Authority took out a building permit in 1962 for the complex, which today has four buildings, and in 1968 it received the occupancy permit. At the time, government fire codes didn’t require high-rise buildings to have sprinkler systems, according to city and public housing officials.
The building at 630 S. Cedar Av. where the fire broke out has smoke alarms but no sprinklers except for “partial sprinkler coverage” on the main floor and lower mechanical equipment rooms, said Casper Hill, a spokesman for the city of Minneapolis.
The state adopted a building code in 1972 that replaced local rules. It was updated in 1979 to require sprinkler protection in high-rise buildings for the first time. Those requirements didn’t apply retroactively, according to Jen Longaecker, a spokeswoman for the State Fire Marshal Division of the Department of Public Safety.
“Buildings complying with the code in effect at the time of construction do not need to improve or upgrade the fire protection features unless they remodel or change the type of occupancy in the building,” Longaecker said in an e-mail.
Portions of the high-rise have been remodeled, according to tenants, but it was unclear Wednesday whether any of the changes would have fit the criteria to trigger a fire sprinkler upgrade. Asked for details of any remodeling efforts, Horwich said, “We aren’t making any further comment at this time.”
The building is managed by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which was scheduled to do a routine inspection next Monday. It last inspected the building in 2015, when it noted that a latch to a trash chute wasn’t working properly and that cockroaches were found in one bathroom and under one kitchen sink. A report completed by an inspector, who spent just over two hours on the premises, noted no problems with the fire alarm systems.
That inspection schedule is roughly on par with the schedule the city uses to inspect private rental property that it licenses. The city inspects apartment buildings every one to eight years, depending on their maintenance level and fire risk.
While the city does not proactively inspect the high-rise because of HUD’s involvement, it does investigate when complaints are submitted. In four cases from 2012 to 2016, the city noted violations involving hazardous conditions and maintenance of fire-alarm protection and extinguishing and kitchen-ventilation equipment. All corrections were made in a matter of days or weeks without sanctions.
The building contains 191 units, a combination of one-bedroom and studio apartments. Many residents live alone or with one roommate, Horwich said. Many are of Somali descent, and a smaller number are of Korean background.
One resident, Mohamed Mohamed, 37, said he was alerted to the fire by a loudspeaker. He got dressed and headed outside from his 22nd-floor apartment.
Before the fire, he said, conditions in the building were good and new smoke detectors were installed a few months ago. Units were checked regularly for maintenance. He said remodeling in his apartment was done several years ago, including new bathroom fixtures and new kitchen cabinets. He also said crews installed a new oven and new closet door.
“It’s not as nice as a house; it’s nice but it’s not too bad,” he said.
Faiza Mahamud, Libor Jany and Randy Furst contributed to this report.