Star Tribune • December 6, 2019 • Photo by Aaron Lavinsky
Linked in life and death
Star Tribune • December 6, 2019 • Photo by Aaron Lavinsky
Linked in life and death
The fire erupted before dawn, choking halls with smoke and leaving them no escape from the building they called home. The five people who perished in the Nov. 27 blaze at Cedar High Apartments in Minneapolis will forever be linked by the tragedy. Yet their lives, as well as their deaths, share a common thread: a brave struggle against cruel fate, a desire to serve, a found community. The five who were lost had overcome mental illness, escaped war-torn lands, fought prejudice and made their way to a place where they found acceptance. These are their stories.
Immigrant made Minnesota home and was 'loved by everyone' for her generosity, involvement.
Amatalah Adam, 78, was born in Somalia and came to the United States in 2000. Adam made Minnesota home and raved to family and friends about the opportunities she received from her adopted country.
A pioneer in the Cedar-Riverside community, Adam worked tirelessly and advocated for the most vulnerable — namely the poor and the elderly.
Adam's husband, Yasin Yusuf, gathered among other families this week to grieve and receive support from charitable organizations and community members, just as his wife always reached out to help others. He said connecting with other families also gave him solace.
According to the Hennepin County Medical Examiner, Adam died of smoke inhalation when a fire broke out on the 14th floor early in the morning of Nov. 27. Yusuf was at work when the building caught fire and didn't find out about his wife's fate until hours later.
"My wife was loved by everyone, including her neighbors," Yusuf said. "She was a wonderful person."
He said his wife dreamed of becoming a nurse, and for a brief stint she studied to become a nursing assistant. Although she had lived in the United States for nearly two decades, Adam continued to support her family back in Somalia. Yusuf worried for them now that his wife is no longer able to be there for them.
As a religious scholar, Adam worked with fellow women at Dar Al-Hijrah mosque, which she helped establish. She specialized in helping them learn to read, write and translate the meaning of the verses of the Qur'an.
When she wasn't teaching, she was fundraising, tutoring people on the phone and practicing her English skills at a community center in her neighborhood.
Adam was ready to take on 2020 with a fresh perspective. She told those closest to her she felt content with her life after she performed the hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, in August.
"She was so happy to live in Minnesota," said her uncle Abdi Hassan. "She was a mentor who worked hard for her community. What happened to her was tragic."
Imam Sharif Abdirahman described Adam as gentle and giving of her time; her nickname was "Deeqo," which he said means generous. She would set up chairs for older congregants at the mosque at Friday prayers and would give up her own chair and sit on the floor if an older person needed it. Adam was buried on Thanksgiving Day.
Eden Prairie native was a 'kind, gentle spirit' who left a family grieving his loss.
Tyler Baron, 32, was from Eden Prairie and attended high school there.
It was unclear when he moved to the Cedar High Apartments, but firefighters believe the unintentional blaze began in his apartment. A number of factors have been listed, but the lone specific cause remains unknown.
He, like the other victims, died of smoke inhalation.
Baron's survivors include parents Scott and Muffy and sisters Allison Bonnett and Ashley Fifield.
Family members declined to be interviewed for this story.
A celebration of Baron's life was held Thursday at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Facebook postings by Baron suggest interests in video games, professional wrestling and visits to the lake.
Over the years, numerous outreach and health organizations were "by Tyler's side through his journey," according to Baron's online obituary.
Among them was Minneapolis-based Tasks Unlimited, a nonprofit that provides employment, housing and recovery services for people with mental illness. The family asked that memorials be submitted to the nonprofit.
His former classmates at Eden Prairie High School marked his death.
"RIP Tyler Baron you were always a good dude! You will be missed," one friend wrote on Baron's Facebook page.
Comments on Baron's obituary from friends and family fondly remembered him as "a kind, caring, gentle spirit."
"He left this earth far too soon and will be missed everyday," Peggy Fifield wrote.
TJ Bonnett wrote: "Tyler was so accepting of me. He was such a nice brother, brother-in-law and son. … We are all blessed for knowing him."
Her gregarious nature attracted neighbors and friends, who she loved to talk with and care for.
Maryan Mohamud, 69, found pleasure in feeding her neighbors as well as the pigeons that congregated in front of her building, said Halima Salah Jama, a friend and longtime neighbor.
Although Mohamud had many health issues, she never complained, Jama said. Instead, she spent time comforting her neighbors and showering them with gifts.
"She was kind and generous," she said. "My heart aches. I will never forget her."
Mohamud, a mother of several children and a grandmother to dozens of grandchildren, arrived in Minnesota from Somalia in 2013.
She lived on the 24th floor of the Cedar High Apartments for four years. She shared the apartment with two of her daughters.
Friends and neighbors of Mohamud described her as friendly and gregarious. She enjoyed socializing with neighbors and was a common sight in the building's community center.
Jama said Mohamud talked often with her neighbors about her plans to eventually return home to Somalia, asking them to keep her in their prayers.
On the morning of the fire, Mohamud tried to escape with her daughters, although it was difficult for her to walk because of her medical problems. In the blinding and suffocating smoke, they lost track of her, and Mohamud was overcome on the 17th floor.
According to the Hennepin County Medical Examiner, Mohamud died of smoke inhalation in the Nov. 27 fire.
Hours after the fire was extinguished, her daughter Fardowsa Yusuf returned to her mother's well-kept apartment, furnished with decorative curtains and a leather couch. She dropped to her knees, rested her forehead on her mother's bed and quietly wept.
"I will not get my mother back," she said.
Yusuf said it was her mother's wish to be buried in Somalia. Her body was flown to Somalia on Thursday, accompanied by three of her daughters. Mosque leaders stood by to assist with last-minute logistics to help Mohamud's body return home.
On the same day, Yusuf and her husband arrived at Dar Al-Hijrah mosque to receive community support and connect with the relatives of other victims.
Still deep in shock and grief, family members said it was difficult to discuss her life before she was laid to rest.
Grieving daughter learned from her mother that 'giving doesn't depend on having.'
Nadifa Mohamud's daughter, Firdaus Aden, said that in the hours before the fire, she spoke with her mother — "my best friend" — about a fundraising drive her mother had undertaken for her Cedar-Riverside mosque, Darul Quba Cultural Center.
"On the night of her death, I called her at midnight — I don't know why," Aden remembered. "She said, 'Tell everyone to contribute. We have to help that mosque.' I promised $100 a month on her behalf, and she was so happy. She always taught me that giving doesn't depend on having. We were poor, with nothing, and she would give away everything we had in the house."
Authorities gave Aden the prayer beads that 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."
Her family buried her the following day, on Thanksgiving.
At Darul Quba last week, Khadijo Mohamed Samatar, Mohamud's cousin, walked around the prayer room with her phone, asking congregants if they could help her 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."
The main lesson Aden learned from her mom was one of generosity.
"Giving doesn't depend on having. We were poor, with nothing," she said. "She gave away everything we have in the house. And [the next day] somebody brought us 5,000 Kenyan [shillings]. She looked at me and said, 'See? You give, you get.' "
Aden said she will now take on her mother's task of raising money for the mosque.
"That was her last wish. That's what I must do for her."
John Reinan is a news reporter covering Greater Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. For the Star Tribune, he's also covered the western Twin Cities suburbs, as well as marketing, advertising and consumer news. He's been a reporter for more than 20 years and also did a stint at a marketing agency.
Reid Forgrave covers Minnesota and the Upper Midwest for the Star Tribune. He started at the paper in September 2019, returning to his newspaper storytelling roots after eight years as a national sportswriter for FOXSports.com and CBSSports.com.