Fadumo Warsame was packaging pita bread Friday morning in the back of the Darul Quba Cultural Center when a fellow congregant broke the news that Warsame’s cousin was dead.
“Allah!” Warsame cried out repeatedly, slapping her hand on her chest as tears welled up in her eyes.
“Every soul is going to taste death,” said Sado Ali, one of the women nearby who rushed to comfort her. “All we can do now is pray for them.”
Warsame’s cousin, Amatalah Adam, 79, and known to friends and family as “Dekha,” was one of five people — three of whom were Somali-Americans — who died Wednesday morning in a fire that engulfed the Cedar High Apartments, a public housing high-rise in Minneapolis’ predominantly immigrant Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Authorities identified the other victims as Maryan Mohamud, 69, Nadifa Mohamud (no relation to Maryan), 67, Jerome Stuart, 59, and Tyler Scott Baron, 32. All died of smoke inhalation.
As dozens of residents in the tight-knit community not far from downtown gathered Friday at Darul Quba to mourn, they were reminded of a similar tragedy nearly six years ago on New Year’s Day 2014, when an explosion and fire in an apartment complex just blocks away killed three people and injured more than a dozen.
“The community is still reeling from that tragedy,” said Ruqia Abdi, a community leader and a close friend of Maryan Mohamud’s daughter. “People are now even more traumatized.”
Firdaus Aden, daughter of Nadifa Mohamud, said many in the community are concerned about the safety of those who live in the building. She said many of her mother’s neighbors are elderly and can’t walk without help.
Aden said she spoke with her mother by telephone just a few hours before the fire broke out — mostly about her mother’s wishes for the community, including raising money for the mosque she helped establish. She believes her mother tried to escape the flames, based on a burn mark on Nadifa’s hand that Aden found while washing her body before the burial on Thursday.
Authorities gave Aden prayer beads, which her mother was holding when she died.
“It’s a very bad tragedy,” Aden said. “I’m just happy I was the one to be able to talk to her last.”
‘I can’t help but cry’
The Minneapolis Fire Department is working to determine how the fire started at the 25-story high rise, though Chief John Fruetel said early signs point to it being an accident.
The tower has 191 units, all of which are full, and rents to low-income residents. Because of its age — it is 50 years old — the building, operated by the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, has sprinklers only on the main floor and lower mechanical equipment rooms.
Authorities say the fire started around 4 a.m. on the 14th floor. The blaze coincided with the season’s first major snowstorm, and it took firefighters 30 minutes to get it under control.
Around 7 a.m., Nadifa Mohamud’s son, Abdi Mohamed, got a call that his mother’s apartment building was burning. He tried calling her again and again, but she did not answer, so he drove to the building to find it surrounded by firefighters. Mohamed identified his mother’s body in a room near the lobby of the building where crews had brought it.
His family buried her and Adam the following day, on Thanksgiving.
The body of Maryan Mohamud will be flown this week to Somalia, where she will be buried.
At the Darul Quba mosque Friday, Khadijo Mohamed Samatar, Nadifa Mohamud’s cousin, walked around the prayer room with her phone, asking congregants if they could delete Nadifa’s number from her contacts. Many of the women were close to her and spoke almost daily.
“I’m deleting her number because I’m afraid and I’m in shock,” Samatar said. “Every time I see her name in my phone, I can’t help but cry.”
A neighborhood comes together
As of Friday afternoon, many living in the high rise remained shaken as cleanup crews blasted loud machines at all hours trying to salvage what remained of the burned units.
Ali Isse, who works on U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s staff, canvassed the apartments to see if residents needed food or medical help. Isse said people haven’t slept well in the days since the fire because of the loud ventilators that were installed in their units and in the halls.
“This is their biggest problem now,” Isse said. “It’s really bothering them. Some of them have even left their apartments because of the loud noise.”
Organizers tried to negotiate with building officials to have the machines turned off at night, but their requests were turned down because the dryers are imperative for preventing mold “in order to save the building,” said Abdirizak Bihi, a community organizer.
Bihi said he’s spoken with a grandmother on the 12th floor who has children willing to take her in, but she’s insisted on staying and working through her trauma with neighbors.
“They have a sense of community there,” Bihi said. “She doesn’t want to go. Her real family is those who live there and socialize every day and evening in the community room.”
That sense of community is familiar to those who experienced the Jan. 1, 2014 explosion and fire. Many of the injured were hospitalized for months.Its cause was never decisively determined, although a gas leak is suspected.
In recent days, the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood has mobilized to offer counseling, food and donations.
Community leaders and staff members from Omar’s office also have been going door to door to help deliver food to residents. And an online fundraiser on the victims’ behalf raised more than $65,000 as of Friday afternoon.
Meanwhile, a block from Darul Quba, congregants gathered at the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque to fundraise and commemorate the life of Adam, a longtime member.
“We appreciate the level of love and support — financially and morally — coming from our ministry community,” Bihi said. “This is not the first time we’ve had such a big issue from fire. What we’ve learned is that out of every crisis comes a strong love and sense of community that unites all of us. That’s what we’re hanging onto.”
Staff writer Liz Sawyer contributed to this report.