The chaos erupted in the night. Dazed residents spilled out of apartments into hallways thick with smoke. As alarms sounded, they struggled down staircase after staircase. They desperately dialled relatives on cell phones, begging for instructions about how to get out.
“We need help!” Sharmarke Ali recalled hearing his father plead in a call that came before dawn.
A fast-moving, smoky fire on the 14th floor of a high-rise in a Minneapolis public housing complex left at least five people dead and three others hospitalised in the early hours of Wednesday, officials said. Residents of The Cedars apartment complex — many of them low-income older people and Somali Americans — described a frantic, confusing evacuation. Four people were found dead in a hallway. Another person died, officials said, after being found ailing in a stairwell.
The blaze struck during a significant snowstorm, leaving scores of residents gathered in coats and snow hats Wednesday morning in the lobby of their fire-worn building. Some were still waiting for answers. A pair of brothers said they had yet to find their father.
“A very tragic night at the beginning of the holiday weekend,” John Fruetel, fire chief of Minneapolis, said at a news conference.
The fire broke out around 4am local time in a 25-story building on Cedar Avenue South, not far from downtown. The 50-year-old building, which has 191 units and about as many residents, is home mostly to older single adults; it stands in a neighbourhood known as Little Mogadishu for its many immigrants and large Somali American community.
“This is the heart of our community,” said Abdi Warsame, a City Council member who represents the area. “It’s a very difficult Thanksgiving for us. Whatever plans we had, it’s not going to be the same.”
Residents said they awoke to the blare of an alarm. One resident described the alarm as making sirenlike noises but also providing spoken instructions, in English, about the presence of a fire and the need to exit the building. Some relatives of residents said that those who heard the alarm were confused about what to do, and many older residents resorted to calling relatives for help.
Late Wednesday, a local medical examiner’s office released the names of four of the people who were killed: Amatalah Adam, 78; Maryan Mohamed Mohamud, 69; Nadifa Mohamud, 67; and Jerome Stuart, 59.
Officials provided few details about the building’s fire prevention system, including information about alarms, sprinklers or evacuation drills. Jeff Horwich, a spokesman for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, said the alarm system was being reviewed as part of an investigation.
A spokeswoman for the city said that the building’s main floor and mechanical rooms had sprinkler systems but that the rest of the building did not. A fire official said that state building codes now require sprinkler systems in high-rises but that older buildings, like this high-rise, would not have been forced to add sprinklers.
Records from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees public housing complexes, show that the building was inspected in 2015 and passed with a score of 95 points out of 100.
Fire officials said they were notified of the blaze by a company that operates fire alarms for the building. By the time firefighters arrived, smoldering flames had burst through glass on the 14th floor and were whipping 10 to 15 feet out of a window, Fruetel said. Inside, he added, firefighters encountered an “extreme environment of heat and wind-driven fire.”
“I can’t express more how precarious that scenario was,” he said.
Ali, the man whose father called him for help, said he woke up to 10 missed calls shortly after 4 a.m. and quickly called his father back. “My dad called and said, ‘Something is happening to the building. Something is going on. There is too much smoke,’” he recalled.
Ali raced to the building to find his father, he said, and encountered other distraught families, some of them sobbing. “It was emotional,” he said.
Ayale Yousuf, 43, who lives nearby, said his mother-in-law called while trying to escape from the 21st floor. He rushed over to the burning building, but he said a firefighter urged him to stay back.
Officials were investigating what caused the fire, which left a charred stain on the outside of the tall, brown building. Fruetel said that the fire had started in one unit on the 14th floor and was believed to be accidental.
At least nine units have been deemed uninhabitable, and the occupants were being moved to other public housing units, officials said.
Other residents had begun to return to their apartments Wednesday afternoon. Others were meeting with officials and religious leaders.
Yahye Mohamed, a community leader, said he had previously conducted training in the neighbourhood about how to evacuate during emergencies, including fires.
“I’m really disappointed and sad,” he said.
“If there were smoke alarms or messages in English,” he said, he worried that residents might not have understood them: “They don’t know how to escape.”