Fourteen people were injured, six critically, early Wednesday morning after an explosion caused a major fire at a grocery store and apartment building in the bustling Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in south Minneapolis.
Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel said they do not know yet if all the residents are accounted for. Some made it out on their own into the subzero temperatures, but others had to be rescued with ladders.
Mohamed Cheikhabdi, head of the Somali Advocate Justice Center, said that family members have reported that three individuals living in the apartments are not in the hospital and have not been accounted for. They are worried that they may have died in the fire, he said.
Asked if anyone had been found inside, Fruetel said water was still being poured on the building and firefighters have not yet been able to enter. Fire investigators are on the scene, and city inspectors are assessing the structural integrity of the building, he said.
Police are interviewing victims at the hospital.
Freutel said there are 10 apartments, nine of them occupied.
He called the blaze “a deep-seated fire” in dangerous conditions. Fire hoses freeze, and nozzles and hydrants also can freeze up while the water used to quell the blaze quickly turns to ice underfoot in the 4-below zero temperature. Firefighters were spreading salt on the street in front of the building to improve traction.
The injured were transported to Hennepin County Medical Center and University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview.
Christine Hill, spokesperson at Hennepin County Medical Center, said 10 fire victims were brought to the emergency room, all adults. Three of them are in critical condition and seven are in satisfactory condition. All have either burns, broken bones or both, she said. A spokeswoman for Fairview University hospital said she could not provide any information.
No cause has been identified as yet, said Greg Nelson, supervisor of the Minneapolis Emergency Communications Center, but the building that housed the Otonga Grocery and several apartments is likely a total loss.
Owner reported ‘electrical shock’
Ahmed Muse, one of five owners of the grocery store, said he arrived at the store at 8 a.m. 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. A police squad car reported the fire at around 8:16 a.m., Nelson said
Flames were shooting 20 feet from the building, officials said. The second and third floors of the three-story building later collapsed.
About dozen fire trucks were on the scene at 516 Cedar Av. to fight the fire with a “defensive attack,” Nelson said.
“These are very treacherous conditions,” said Fruetel, citing the below-zero temperatures. He said firefighters initially entered the building, but had to retreat. There were about 50 firefighters on the scene as of 9:30 a.m.
Residents from other buildings were watching from nearby sidewalks as fire officials have cordoned off the area at 6th Street and Cedar Av. S. Streets were slicked with ice from the water used on the fire.
Ismail Adan, 34, a truck driver, has lived in the building since 2002 and left shortly before the fire. He said his mother had called him early in the morning and he left to visit her, but a cousin who was staying with him was in the third-floor apartment when the explosion occurred. He said the cousin jumped out of the building and was injured but he has spoken with him by phone in the hospital.
“He’s OK. It’s not very serious,” Adan said.
Adan confirmed that the apartments are all occupied by single men.
Red Cross gave Adam $290 for food and clothing and is helping him find another place to stay. “I am grateful I have my jacket,” he said. “I lost everything.”
Otonga Grocery served halal meats and was popular among the neighborhood’s many Somali American residents. Muse said 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. The building is managed by Wadani Properties of Minneapolis, which is owned by Garad Nor, according to Minneapolis and Secretary of State records.
Nor was at the scene Wednesday afternoon, appearing shaken. He said said he has owned the building since 2005 and did not know the fire’s cause. He said he hurried to the scene after the fire started, then went to visit victims at HCMC.
“This is a disaster,” he said. “I’m very sorry for this.”
Mosque next door may be damaged
A mosque and cultural center stands between the grocery, the Islamic Civic Society of America & Dar Al-Hijrah, and Palmers Bar.
Abdisalam Adam, chairman of the center’s board, said its building is separate and the center does not own the building that exploded. He said the mosque has likely been damaged by smoke and water, but he has not been able to get inside to confirm.
“It’s really tragic and unexpected, but we have faith in God,” Adam said. He was out on the street.
Kamaro Ali’s Wajadir Grocery & Halal meat is across the street from the Otonga Grocery. “We have to help each other. If I needed help, they’d help me,” she said.
Nur Abdulkader was asleep in his apartment in the Riverside towers just behind the grocery building when the fire erupted. “Somebody called me and said the building exploded and there was a fire.”
He ran outside and watched the firefighters at work. “These people did a heck of a job.”
Mayor R.T. Rybak, Mayor-elect Betsy Hodges and city council member-elect Abdi Warsame said they had visited some of the victims in the hospital. Hodges called the fire “a tragedy for the city” and said she wanted the families of the victims “to know they’re not alone.”