There were 24 floors between Maryan Mohamud and safety, two dozen sets of stairs that would mean life or death for a woman who struggled daily to walk.
She only made seven of them.
With two of her daughters helping her down the steps of a burning apartment tower, the 69-year-old Mohamud was overcome by smoke on the 17th floor. She was one of five people who died Wednesday in the early-morning fire at Cedar High Apartments, a blaze so intense that firefighters likened it to a blast furnace.
Four people were injured in the fire, which started around 4 a.m. in the 25-story tower in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood near downtown Minneapolis.
Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel called the blaze “a very tragic night at the beginning of a holiday weekend.” Fruetel said investigators have made an initial judgment that the fire was accidental, but “it’s going to take some time” to determine the cause. Fighting not only the flames but also the season’s first major snowstorm, firefighters extinguished the blaze in about 30 minutes.
In addition to Mohamud, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office late Wednesday identified three others who died as Jerome Stuart, 59; Nadifa Mohamud, 67; and Amatalah Adam, 78. All succumbed to smoke inhalation, the examiner’s office said. The identity of the fifth victim was not available Wednesday.
Four victims were pronounced dead at the scene; a fifth was found in a stairwell and died at the hospital.
One firefighter among the nearly four dozen who responded suffered a minor injury.
As word of the blaze spread Wednesday morning, relatives of the residents were frantically calling and texting, trying to get word on whether their loved ones were safe.
Mohamed Jama, who lives in the Twin Cities but is in East Africa for work, is related to Nadifa Mohamud. Jama saw reports of the fire online and began reaching out to friends for news. One of them informed Jama that the fire was in the same building where Jama grew up.
“This needs to be explored,” Jama said hours after the fire. “How long are they going to give condolences?”
The 191-unit building for low-income clients is operated by the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority and is at full capacity, authorities said. Most units are occupied by either one or two adults; many are of Somali descent, with a smaller number of Korean background.
Built in 1969, the building has smoke alarms but no sprinklers except for “partial sprinkler coverage” on the main floor and lower mechanical equipment rooms.
Under the city’s fire code, buildings of that age are not required to have a sprinkler system, said city spokesman Casper Hill.
Complaints prompted the city to do safety inspections of the building between 2012 and 2016, Hill said. Some code violations pertaining to fire protection extinguishing and ventilation equipment were found and promptly corrected, he said.
The building is managed by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which inspected the building in 2015 and gave it a score of 95 out of 100. The data didn’t specify why points were deducted, and representatives of the department declined to comment pending the ongoing investigation.
Hallway filled with smoke
By midday Wednesday, firefighting teams had left the building. Residents, families and community members filled the common areas of the tower’s first floor, trying to make sense of the day’s events. Volunteers with the American Red Cross served coffee, pastries, fruit and popcorn.
Abdi Warsame, who represents the area on the Minneapolis City Council, said many residents were still in shock.
“From the outside they look OK, but I’m sure they’re hurting on the inside,” he said. “It’s frightening, saddening. Most of the people here are seniors or people with disabilities.”
Ahmed Hussein was in the building Tuesday night visiting his parents, who are in their 60s and live on the 24th floor.
At 3:45 a.m. an alarm went off, accompanied by an electronic voice calling out, “Fire! Fire!” Hussein peeked into the hallway and saw it was filled with smoke.
“As soon as I heard the alarm, I thought it was something small, but that’s when I suspected the issue was not smoke,” Hussein said.
He gathered his parents and they headed down the stairs because the elevators were deactivated. As they descended, they saw firefighters coming up the stairs and ordering people to get back into their apartments.
Kamal Yusuf lives on the 11th floor. He said he woke to the smell of smoke and heard wailing and noise as he was running downstairs. He ran back up to fetch his cousin, Xawo Nur, but couldn’t reach him because of the smoke. Nur suffered from smoke inhalation but will recover.
Fire officials said it was challenging to battle the blaze because the tower is laid out with many small, confined spaces. Firefighters also had to confront language barriers when communicating with residents.
By the time firefighters arrived, “the fire had a pretty good start on us,” Fruetel said. “It had been burning for awhile.”
Along with attacking the blaze, firefighters had to search all the floors above where the fire started.
“I think the first responders did a good job,” Warsame said. “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,” he added. “You wouldn’t recognize it. It’s all burned out … there’s water all over the floor. It turned out bad — it’s tragic — but it could have been a lot worse.”
In a Facebook post in English and Somali, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey called the incident “devastating. Keeping the residents, families and friends in our thoughts as they wake to news of the tragedy.”
After the fire was extinguished, Fardowsa Yusuf, one of Maryan Mohamud’s daughters, was allowed back into her mother’s apartment.
She dropped to her knees, rested her forehead on her mother’s bed and quietly wept.
“I will not get my mother back,” she said.
Staff writers Libor Jany, Randy Furst, Tim Harlow and Liz Navratil contributed to this report.