Marino Eccher, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published January 02 2014
Body found in ruins of Minneapolis apartment building; natural gas suspected as cause of explosion
Officials also said the New Year’s Day conflagration in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, the heart of Minneapolis’ East African community, was potentially caused by a natural gas explosion.
The fire left the 10-unit apartment building and its first-floor Otanga Grocery store a charred, frigid shell. On Thursday, crews began methodically demolishing the brick building, whose roof and floors had collapsed.
One body was found in the three-story building just before 2 p.m. and turned over to the Hennepin County medical examiner’s office for identification.
Fourteen people were hospitalized immediately after the three-alarm fire, six of them in critical condition, said Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel.
There were conflicting reports about how many people were still missing. Before the discovery of the body Thursday, Fruetel said two people were officially unaccounted for. He also said one of the people hospitalized had yet to be identified.
However, family members and friends of residents who gathered Thursday at the Brian Coyle Community Center identified at least three missing people.
They were Ahmed Ali, 57; his 9-year-old son, Abdirahman Ali; and Mrimri Farah, an out-of-town visitor who was staying with Ahmed Ali.
Ali’s former wife, Hawo Daqare, 44, of St. Paul, said she last saw her 9-year-old son Saturday. She tried to call Ali when she heard about the fire, but didn’t reach him.
Sharief Hassan, a friend of Ali’s, said he checked with local hospitals but didn’t find him.
“Everything is in God’s hands,” he said.
Family members brought pictures, birth certificates and other documents for the missing people with them to the community center, where city officials held a news conference Thursday. They met with authorities and community leaders afterward.
Of the injured, three people remained in critical condition at Hennepin County Medical Center, while six were in satisfactory condition, according to the hospital. University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, said it was treating at least two patients Thursday — one in serious condition with broken bones and one in good condition with back pain.
Based on the nature of the explosion and reports of a gas odor, investigators now suspect natural gas caused the explosion, Fruetel said.
He said there’s still a long way to go to determine how or where it was sparked. It seemed to come from the second or third floor, he said, but cautioned that the full picture might never be known given the extent of the damage. There was no evidence of foul play, Fruetel said.
Becca Virden, a spokeswoman for CenterPoint Energy, said there were no natural gas leaks in the system connecting the building and that the utility received no reports of a suspicious odor before the blast.
Fire officials have said the building was last inspected in 2012 and had no outstanding issues.
More than 50 firefighters responded to the scene Wednesday morning. The first alarm came at 8:16 a.m. in subzero temperatures.
Firefighters were able to pull some people from the building, but had to evacuate because of the intensity of the blaze and worries about the stability of the building. Other victims were found on the ground, some with injuries that suggested they had jumped from windows or been expelled by the force of the blast.
Fire officials said crews would continue to work the scene until dark Thursday, then resume in the morning.
At the news conference, Betsy Hodges, who had been sworn in as Minneapolis’ new mayor earlier Thursday, thanked firefighters for working through difficult conditions and said the city “stands ready” to offer aid to victims.
“We know that this is an agonizing time for some of the families that are waiting for information about their loved ones,” she said.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, whose district includes Minneapolis, said local Somali leaders had been “a tremendous resource already.”
“This is a resilient, brave, courageous community,” he said.
Muhamad Noor, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, said the organization is setting up a disaster relief fund dedicated to helping the victims.
The American Red Cross and Salvation Army also gave assistance.
Some help came on a smaller scale Thursday, with a number of people dropping by the community center with clothing, cash and other items to donate to the victims.
Karen Colton, a nurse from Bloomington, heard about the fire in the news and went through her house collecting boots, coats and other winter gear to contribute.
Colton, 49, said she was moved to help because she works with many East African immigrants and feels for the community.
“They go through so much to get here and then just to wake up and lose everything, I can’t imagine it,” she said.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.