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Marino Eccher, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published January 03 2014

Second body found in ruins of Minneapolis apartment building

MINNEAPOLIS – Abdi Qobey was sitting in bed watching television early on New Year’s Day when he heard the “boom.” The walls of his Minneapolis apartment buckled and crumbled around him, and the only illumination in the hallway outside his apartment came from the light of flames.

Within moments, the building in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood filled with black smoke. A police officer outside his second-story window beckoned him to jump. Qobey figured he didn’t have much choice.

“I see the smoke, I see already I’m going to suffocate if I stay one more minute,” he said. “I knew that if I stay, I’m not going to stay alive.”

The 60-year-old resident of the apartment building, destroyed by the explosion and fire around 8:15 a.m. Wednesday, spoke Friday from a hospital bed in the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.

He suffered fractures in both legs and a back injury when he jumped from the window but said he was glad to be alive.

Qobey, originally from Somalia and a resident of the building for seven or eight years, was one of 14 people hospitalized after the blast tore through the three-story brick building, which also housed a first-floor grocery store.

Nine people were still hospitalized Friday, including three in critical condition.

Two people had been reported as missing in the hours after the disaster; they were identified by friends and family as Ahmed Ali, 57, and Mrimri Farah, who is around 60.

Firefighters discovered one body Thursday, and on Friday afternoon, authorities said it was that of Ali.

The remains of a second victim were found about 10 a.m. Friday. The body was taken to the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office for identification.

Minneapolis Fire Department officials said they believed the two bodies recovered were the only fatalities in the three-alarm conflagration, which investigators suspect was caused by a natural gas explosion. Assistant Chief Cherie Penn said the department believes it has accounted for everyone who was in the building.

On Friday, the Pioneer Press reported that another person, Ali’s 9-year-old son, was also believed to be missing, according to his mother, Hawo Daqare, who is Ali’s ex-wife. However, it later became clear that the boy was not missing.

Some of those who escaped the fire had burn injuries. Others, like Qobey, had leg and back injuries from jumping to safety.

That was the case for 29-year-old Hersi Hassan, who lived on the second floor with his two sisters. In a Friday interview at HCMC, Hassan said he awoke Wednesday to commotion and smelled smoke.

He opened the door and found the hallway impassable, so he and his sisters went to the window and decided to jump. They were scared, he said.

He broke a leg and hurt his back. His sisters each broke both legs. They lost everything, he said.

“I don’t have a place to sleep. I don’t have money. I don’t have a job,” Hassan said. “That’s why I’m scared.”

He is a Somali immigrant, like most of the residents in the building in the heart of Minneapolis’ East African community.

Mohamud Noor, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, said his group has opened a fund to collect donations for victims and families. The Salvation Army and American Red Cross were also offering assistance.

Qobey lost everything, too, except for the pants, jacket and shoes he put on before jumping.

More important than that, though, “I have a God yet,” he said. And after coming from a war-torn homeland, he said he was keeping the losses from the fire in perspective.

“You lost your whole country,” he said – so it doesn’t make sense to despair “if I lost one apartment.”

About four hours after the second body was recovered from the fire scene Friday, a crew finished tearing down the 127-year-old building; the fire had consumed the ceiling and floors, and inspectors deemed the brick walls too unstable to remain.

As that work went on in the biting cold, so did the investigation into what caused the explosion. The work was being done by the Minneapolis Arson Squad – a special unit made up of firefighters and police officers – and the state fire marshal’s office.

Any job that is hard to begin with is even more so when the temperature is below freezing and the wind chill is in the low single digits, said Mike Colestock, a former firefighter who is now associate dean of Public and Emergency Service Careers at Hennepin Technical College.

“It’s slippery and there’s a layer of ice covering things that they want to look at,” he said. “It makes evidence recovery difficult.”

Investigating the cause of a fire “is a very slow, very deliberate process,” he said.

“You see inspectors start at one end of the building and slowly and methodically work their way to the other end, and sometimes they’ll do that three or four times,” Colestock said. “It would absolutely be more difficult when it is this cold out.”

Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel said there had been reports of a gas odor before the explosion. Those accounts – coupled with the nature of the damage – are leading investigators to suspect that natural gas caused the blast.

A spokeswoman for CenterPoint Energy said there were no natural gas leaks in the lines that connected the building to the gas distribution lines, and the utility didn’t get any reports of gas smells.

Fruetel has said that as of yet, there is no evidence of foul play, and at this point in the investigation, it appeared the source of ignition was on the second or third floor. However, he has said the exact cause may never be determined.

David Hanners contributed to this report.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.