By Steve Brandt, Randy Furst and Paul Walsh
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
MINNEAPOLIS (MCT) -- The New Year's Day apartment fire in Minneapolis claimed its first fatality Thursday as investigators and CenterPoint Energy debated whether natural gas was a potential cause of the explosion that sparked the fire.
Fire Chief John Fruetel said investigators were focusing on natural gas as a likely cause of the Wednesday explosion that ignited the fire in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, although he said that weeks of investigation likely will be required to determine the cause.
However, a spokesman for CenterPoint Energy strongly discounted gas as the culprit.
"We had no natural gas in the area," said Rebecca Virden, who based her assertion on the utility's investigation and testing in the area. If the blast were due to natural gas, Virden added, "the roof would come off, the walls would come out."
If a gas were involved, she said, "it could be a different type of gas."
Asked about CenterPoint's denial, Fruetel said, "I'm just basing it on what my investigators say."
He said that witness accounts of a natural gas smell and the type of explosion suggest gas was involved. He said that investigators early on ruled out an explosive device, despite the presence of Department of Homeland Security personnel on Wednesday.
At least 14 people were injured, six of them critically. The body of a fire victim was discovered Thursday afternoon as excavating equipment began knocking down walls of the gutted three-story building shared by a grocery and 10 apartments.
Imam Sharif Mohamed from the mosque next door was escorted to the building to pray over the body before it was removed by the Hennepin County medical examiner's office. The victim has not been identified.
Besides the body found Thursday, one other person remains unaccounted for, authorities said. One of those hospitalized hasn't yet been identified, Fruetel said.
Meanwhile, plans to raise aid for the victims blossomed, including a dedicated bank account, a benefit concert and an offer to the neighbor mosque to share space while its building is repaired.
Family members identified the two people not accounted for as Mrimri Farah, said to be about 60 years old, and Ahmad Ali, 57, who shared an apartment. Ali's ex-wife Hawo Daqare said they divorced in 2006 but continued to share parenting of their son.
"I feel very bad, but I cannot do anything. Imagine if you lost someone," she said.
She said Ali lived in npartment no. 6 on the second floor.
Farah previously served in the U.S. Army and at one point was stationed in Iraq, said Shareef Hassan, a friend. Farah had gone to live in Somalia and came back to live in Minneapolis a couple of months ago.
University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, said that it was treating at least two victims, one in serious condition with broken bones and another in good condition with back pain. They were not identified. A Red Cross official said it had helped two victims and stood ready with housing, food, clothing and mental health counseling for others displaced.
The fire displaced the Masjid Dar Al-Hijrah mosque and the Islamic Civic Society of America from their building that wraps around the destroyed grocery-apartment building. Basim Sabri, who renovated the mosque building, estimated that it will be unusable for six months.
The building reeked of smoke and had broken glass on the floor as mosque leaders led U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., through the building. "I've been in this building many times," said Ellison, the first Muslim in Congress. "It's really tragic because I feel like I'm a part of that mosque a little bit."
Sabri said that although water was 28 inches deep in the basement of the mosque and mechanical systems were damaged, it appeared that the building sustained no structural damage. The mosque said that Friday prayers will be held at the nearby Brian Coyle Community Center. Sabri has offered space in one of his buildings, and Rabbi Michael Adam Latz of Shir Tikvah synagogue said that "we would be delighted to welcome them into our space." Latz and Mohamed met on Mayor Betsy Hodges' transition advisory committee. The mosque's board will decide on where to hold prayers.
"The firefighters did a great job," said Wali Dirie, executive director of the mosque and society. "They kept the fire from reaching our building."
The area's City Council member-elect, Abdi Warsame, appeared with officials at an afternoon news briefing. "This is a Minneapolis tragedy. This is a Minnesota tragedy. This is not just an East African tragedy. This is not just a Cedar-Riverside tragedy," he said.
Hodges, elected in November over firefighter union opposition, extended an olive branch. "I'm grateful that we have such people taking care of our community," she said.
The Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota said it had opened a Wells Fargo Bank account to aid victims and their families.
Confederation Director Mohamud Noor said that Sherman Associates has offered interim housing for victims in unoccupied units of its Riverside Plaza, which towers beside the ruined building. Augsburg College and the Cedar Cultural Center are organizing a benefit concert at the center for Jan. 24, according to a college spokeswoman.
The destroyed building was built in 1886, the same year as former local landmark Dania Hall, just 200 feet away and also erased by fire in 2000.
(Staff writer Rochelle Olson contributed to this report.)