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Minneapolis firefighters leave the scene after a deadly fire at a high-rise apartment building, on Nov. 27, 2019.

David Joles/The Associated Press

Five people died and three were injured when a fire broke out on the 14th floor of a public housing high-rise in a heavily immigrant neighbourhood of Minneapolis early Wednesday.

While the cause of the blaze was still under investigation, Fire Chief John Fruetel told reporters that investigators believe the fire was an accident, but he didn’t explain why. The building is in part of Minneapolis known as Little Mogadishu for the many Somali immigrants who have settled there.

Fruetel said the fire had been burning for a while and had blown out windows by the time firefighters arrived. A fire alarm was sounding throughout the building, and from a distance, flames could be seen extending 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.5 metres) from windows on the 14th floor.

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With those open windows and winds whipping in from an overnight wintry storm, the scene was “an extreme environment of heat and wind-driven fire,” he said.

“I can’t express more about how precarious that scenario was to those firefighters,” Fruetel said. “They encountered a lot of heat ... It was very similar to a blast furnace.”

The chief called it “a very chaotic scenario,” and said firefighters had to climb multiple flights of stairs while people were coming down. He said residents on floors above the fire were told to shelter in place.

Abdi Warsame, a City Council member who toured the floor that burned, expressed amazement that more people weren’t killed. The 25-story building caters to seniors and singles.

“It was absolutely gutted,” said Warsame, who is Somali-American. “It was horrendous.”

On Wednesday evening, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office identified four of the five people who died: Amatalah Adam, 78; Maryan Mohamud, 69; Nadifa Mohamud, 67, all women; and a man, Jerome Stuart, 59. All four died of smoke inhalation at the scene, the medical examiner’s office said. The name of the fifth victim was not released, but authorities said all the people who died were adults.

Three other people were injured and are being treated at local hospitals. Authorities have not released details of their conditions. A firefighter was treated for an exertion-related injury.

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The fire broke out around 4 a.m. on the 14th floor of the Cedar High Apartments. Fruetel said firefighters found heavy smoke on the 16th and 17th floors as residents were evacuated through the stairwells.

Mayor Jacob Frey, in a Facebook post in English and Somali, called the fire “devastating.”

The building is part of a complex known as The Cedars. Minneapolis Public Housing Authority spokesman Jeff Horwich said Cedar High has 191 apartments, all one-bedroom or studio units. There were 198 residents living in the building at the time of the fire.

Abdirahman Shire, 53, of Minneapolis, said his 74-year-old mother lives alone on the 13th floor. She told him that she was alerted to the fire by the smell of smoke, and that she ran down the stairs to escape.

When she reached the lobby, only six other people were there.

“She said, `I open the door and I smelled, and I hear the noise and I run,“’ Shire said.

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Hours later, Tracey Scott, the interim executive director of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, said most residents had been allowed back into their apartments. Fewer than nine units were deemed uninhabitable and those residents were temporarily placed into other public housing units. The Red Cross was also on hand to help victims.

Several family members streamed into the building on Wednesday to check on loved ones, some of them in tears.

Though the building sits in a heavily Somali section of Minneapolis, it’s a melting pot of new arrivals in the city. When residents gathered after the fire for a meeting, organizers arranged Somali, Korean, Spanish and Oromo interpreters.

Warsame, the City Council member, said he knew one victim was a Somali grandmother, and her children and grandchildren were at the building on Wednesday trying to track down more information.

Fire department spokesman Bryan Tyner said four of the victims were located on the 14th floor and another in a stairwell, and it was unknown if any of them were related or came from the same unit.

Casper Hill, a city spokesman, said the main floor and lower mechanical rooms had partial sprinkler coverage but the rest of the building did not have a sprinkler system. Horwich said the building was built in 1969 and wasn’t required to have a sprinkler system due to its age. He referred follow-up questions to another Housing Authority official who did not immediately respond to messages.

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City officials said public housing inspections are handled by federal agencies, and that the city inspected the building only to respond to specific complaints. They said their records showed just a few inspections in recent years. The most recent, in 2016, was for failure to clean exhaust hoods “contaminated by grease-laden vapours” every six months; the inspector’s report said the last record of maintenance was four years earlier.

Calls to the Housing and Urban Development office in Minneapolis were referred to Chicago, where a message was not returned. According to the most recent data posted on HUD’s website, the building received a physical inspection score of 95 out of 100 in February of 2015. The data doesn’t say what the score means or provide any details.

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