A Minneapolis man was charged Wednesday with a felony after police said his careless disposal of embers from a hookah accidentally started the fire that destroyed the Bde Maka Ska/Lake Calhoun pavilion last month.
Nouh O. Elmi, 23, dumped hot coals from the hookah behind garbage cans on the building’s southwest corner, causing a blaze that eventually engulfed the building on May 16, according to a complaint filed at district court. Elmi was charged with negligent fire damaging property valued at more than $2,500, though the total estimated loss was over $2 million.
The fire, which was reported shortly before 4 a.m., broke through the roof of the pavilion, where the Lola on the Lake restaurant concession operated. The building has since been razed.
Two weeks ago, police released images from city-owned surveillance cameras that showed a man and woman standing and sitting next to the pavilion minutes before the fire, and then the man bent over a sparking object.
A hookah is a water pipe with a long, flexible tube used to smoke flavored tobacco. The tobacco is heated indirectly with coals or wood embers.
Elmi was charged by summons and remains free before a July 10 court appearance.
Elmi did not respond to messages Wednesday seeking comment.
Court records for Elmi show no convictions in Minnesota any more serious than traffic violations.
Louis King, owner of Lola on the Lake, had been preparing for what he hoped to be a successful season operating his restaurant out of the pavilion. Before the fire, King was rolling out many changes for Lola’s second season after a rough first year.
“As I said all along, I trusted that the police would do their job, and they have,” King said Wednesday after learning about the charges. “And our job is to rebuild, and we shall.”
Striking an understanding tone, King added, “Kids make mistakes. Sometimes they have terrible outcomes. … Certainly, we’re glad that there was no intent.”
In a statement, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board President Brad Bourn said the board is focused on “restorative efforts” after the fire. “We also value a justice system that is restorative, instead of punitive,” he wrote.
According to the complaint:
Video surveillance from Lola and a nearby business shows Elmi and a woman sitting at the table closest to the building, where he took the hookah from a bag shortly before 3 a.m. and attempted to light it.
Stormy winds blew sparks from the top of the hookah and they grew into glowing embers. About 20 minutes later, Elmi dumped the embers behind three trash cans along the southwest corner of the restaurant, a spot that was dry but exposed to the wind.
“Several other options for disposing coals are available,” the charging document noted.
Elmi and the woman walked away as the video surveillance picked up the first signs of fire. A few minutes later, Elmi returned looking for something before leaving for good.
Flames grew at the base of a column, then spread to the inside of the building and to the roof. It took less than 30 minutes from the time Elmi dumped the embers until the building was consumed by fire.
After news coverage of the fire, the woman revealed to authorities that she was the person with Elmi and identified him, according to the complaint.
On May 21, the day police released the still frames from the surveillance camera, readers on Facebook questioned whether the pair was holding a hookah and started the fire accidentally. The Star Tribune repeatedly asked police spokeswoman Sgt. Darcy Horn whether they were smoking a hookah, but she refused to comment.
“I’m not going to speak anymore as to what may be in those images,” she said at the time.
Staff writers Miguel Otárola and Andy Mannix contributed to this report.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482