Updated: 01/02/2014 6:58 PM KSTP.com By: Leslie Dyste
Crews battle a Minneapolis apartment fire on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014.
Photo: Photo: AP/Jeff Baenen
Photo: KSTP-TV/Steve Tellier
One person is dead, at least one person is unaccounted for and fourteen people have been hospitalized after a building explosion and fire in Minneapolis on New Year’s Day.
Fire crews responded to the report of the explosion around 8 a.m. Wednesday on the 500 block of Cedar Avenue.
In a news conference Thursday Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel said the investigation is focusing on a potential gas type scenario due to witness statements. Witnesses reported smelling natural gas.
He said there is no reason to believe the explosion was caused by an intentional explosive device. He says it's a very active investigation and it will be very challenging to find a cause.
CenterPoint Energy spokeswoman Becca Virden said there were no natural gas leaks in the area.
Fire officials told KSTP reporter Jay Kolls the FBI and ATF were also investigating.
A victim's body was found in the structure on Cedar Avenue Thursday afternoon and has been turned over to the Hennepin County Medical Examiner's Office.
One of the 14 hospitalized victims has not been identified.
Hennepin County Medical Center officials said they had three patients in critical condition and six in satisfactory condition as of Thursday evening. Robert Ball of Hennepin County Emergency Medical Services says the victims suffered from injuries ranging from burns to trauma associated with falling or jumping from windows.
At least two other victims went to the University of Minnesota Medical Center-Fairview. One patient is in serious condition with broken bones while another is in good condition with back pain.
Crews remained on the scene Thursday removing debris from the area until it was too dark. Debris removal will begin again Friday morning. Fire officials said debris removal will be a very slow and deliberate process.
A witness at the scene tells KSTP he heard an explosion and then saw the fire shortly after. Multiple victims were already outside when crews arrived, and flames were shooting about 20 feet out of the windows on the second and third floor, according to officials at the scene.
The first firefighters who arrived on the scene said it looked like a "war zone."
Fruetel said it was very difficult to fight the blaze because the bitter cold turned the area into an ice rink.
A woman who owns a nearby convenience store tells KSTP the building is a community center that contains apartments, a grocery store and mosque. The first floor is a commercial use area and the second and third floors are apartments.
Fruetel says there are about 10 apartment units in the building, at least nine of which were occupied at the time.
The last inspection of the building was in 2012, and fire officials say there were no outstanding inspection issues for the building.
Somali leaders tell KSTP that mosque is one of the first places in Minnesota where the Somali community worshipped. Officials said the mosque was damaged, but it will be fine.
“This whole area is very significant to the community,” newly-elected Ward 6 Council Member Abdi Warsame said. “It has the mosque, it has a bar as well, as well as the grocery store. But what we are worried about right now are the victims.”
“My heart goes out to the victims and families,” Warsame said during the press conference. “It’s a tragic event.”
Help for Victims
As usual, we’re already seeing the generosity of Minnesotans who are ready to step up to help the victims. A mother and daughter from Mendota Heights came to the Brian Coyle Center with a donation of clothing.
The Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota also has a disaster relief fund open Thursday to accept donations, and 100 percent of the donations will go to victims and families, according to organizers. Community members can donate at www.csc-mn.org.
The Brian Coyle Center was open for family and victims of the fire to reunite.
Gov. Mark Dayton made a statement regarding the fire.
"On behalf of all Minnesotans, I extend my deepest sympathies to the victims of today's awful fire in Minneapolis and to their families and friends," he said. "We hope for your swift and complete recoveries. I also want to thank the State Troopers, Minneapolis Police Officers, firefighters, and other first responders who endangered themselves to save the lives of those engulfed by this terrible tragedy."
Newly sworn in Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said when one part of our community is hurting, our entire community is hurting. "The city stands with you, our hearts and our thoughts and our prayers are with you," she said.
To listen to the audio of the initial response, click here.