MINNEAPOLIS — Five people died early Wednesday in a fire on the 14th floor of a Minneapolis public housing high-rise, and three others were hospitalized, authorities said.

The blaze in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood broke out around 4 a.m. at the Cedar High Apartments, a 25-story building near downtown Minneapolis. It was extinguished within 30 minutes, a Fire Department spokesman said.

After an initial investigation, it’s believed to have started accidentally, Fire Chief John Fruetel said about 10 hours after the fire began. Any further determination “is going to take some time” to sort out, the chief said.

Late Wednesday afternoon, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office identified four of the five who died as Jerome Stuart, 59; Nadifa Mohamud, 67; Maryan Mohamed Mohamud 69; and Amatala Shadam, 78.

This was a “very tragic night at the beginning of a holiday weekend,” Fruetel said earlier during a predawn news media briefing outside the complex.

The alarm company that monitors the building alerted the Fire Department, and crews arrived to find flames shooting out of windows on the 14th floor.

Fruetel said the arriving fire crews knew the alarm was coming from the 14th floor, but wind and blowing snow prevented them from seeing any higher than the eighth floor. Crews farther away, however, could see smoke and flames blowing 10 to 15 feet out one window.

“The fire had a pretty good head start on us,” Fruetel said. “It had been burning for a while.”

Once firefighters overcame “a very chaotic scenario” while going up the stairs as residents scrambled down, they encountered “an extreme environment of heat and wind-driven fire,” said the chief, who likened the conditions to a blast furnace. “I cannot express more about how precarious that scenario was for those firefighters.”

The 191-unit building for low-income clients is operated by the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, or MPHA, and is at full capacity. Most units have either one or two adult residents, said Jeff Horwich, agency communications director. Many are of Somali descent, with a smaller number of Korean background, Horwich said.

Horwich said the building of one-bedroom and studio units was built in 1969 and has “no history in terms of safety issues to speak of, that I know.”

It has smoke alarms but no sprinklers except for “partial sprinkler coverage” on the main floor and lower mechanical equipment rooms, said city spokesman Casper Hill. Buildings of that age are not required by code to have a sprinkler system.

The city of Minneapolis does no conduct scheduled inspections of the building, because it is managed by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, Hill said. According to data available on HUD’s website, the building received a score of 95 out of 100 during an inspection conducted in February 2015. The data didn’t specify why points were deducted, and representatives for HUD declined to comment citing the ongoing investigation.

HUD involvement aside, the city has conducted inspections at that building when complaints are submitted. In those four cases, from 2012-16, there were violations involving hazardous conditions, and maintenance of fire alarm protection, and extinguishing and kitchen ventilation equipment. All corrections were made in a matter of days or weeks without sanctions.

Authorities now turn their attention to how the blaze started, working from initial indicators of it being accidental. An investigation unit will be formed with investigators from the Fire Department and the Police Department’s arson unit, the mayor’s office said.

Five hours after the fire, more than 100 people made up mostly of building residents and a handful of community members gathered in the lobby as firefighters began allowing some back to their apartments. Abdirizak Bihi, a community leader said he was told by police that the victims were three women and two men. Four of them were older Somali-Americans, while the fifth was a younger white man.

Firefighters said they frequently respond to false alarms at this address. One said it’s challenging to fight a fire in this high rise because of its small confined spaces. They also must confront language barriers when communicating with residents, many of whom are elderly.

Sixth Ward Council Member Abdi Warsame, who represents the area, said at least three of the victims were East African. He declined to give identifying details of the victims. “We kind of know but we’re waiting for the next of kin to be notified,” he said. “It’s frightening, saddening. Most of the people here are seniors or people with disabilities.”

Warsame added, “I think the first responders did a good job, they got everybody down and it could have been a lot worse. I got a tour of the 14th floor, and it’s just gutted. You wouldn’t recognize it. … It turned out bad, it’s tragic, but it could have been a lot worse.”

“Devastating,” Mayor Jacob Frey said in a Facebook posting a few hours after the blaze, which includes a version of his message in Somali. “Keeping the residents, families and friends in our thoughts as they wake to news of a tragedy.”

 

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