Fri Jan 03, 2014 at 7:40 AM PT: More sad news this morning regarding the two unaccounted for men in the building -- Ahmad Ali, age 57 who lived on the second floor of the building, and his visiting friend Mrimri Farah, age 60. Please see the end of this diary for details.
A tragic fire struck the heart of the Somali community in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis yesterday, setting ablaze a three-story building with an East African grocery store on the main floor and apartments above. The latest local news reports indicate that not everyone staying in the apartments has been accounted for. This is partly due to the fact that multiple floors of the building collapsed and it is not yet safe to conduct an investigation. Another factor unique to this situation is that it is common for new Somali immigrants to couch surf with friends or family members until they are able to obtain housing for themselves. Some have a formal arrangement and stay in one place, while others stay with different friends on a rotating basis. Coupled with the language barrier, it can be difficult to track down individual people. Questions remain regarding the whereabouts of as many as three individuals. 14 people were hospitalized, with three remaining in critical condition today. Investigators are hoping to find a way to enter the building today to determine the cause of the fire and rule out the presence of bodies.
Initial national news reports were short on details, failing to mention the large cultural influence of the world's largest Somali population outside of Mogadishu in this area. A vague quote from recently-elected Minneapolis City Council member Abdi Warsame, the first Somali politician elected to office here, mentioned that a mosque near the building could have sustained damage. This small anecdote was all it took for xenophobic conspiracy theories to spring up on the internet from those with a vested interest in spreading the tired "Muslim terrorists are building bombs," trope.
Please continue below the fold for more info.
No official in Minneapolis has suggested the explosion could possibly have resulted from a bomb, and I believe Mr. Warsame only mentioned the mosque because of its obvious importance to the community and perhaps out of concern for arson committed by someone with ill will toward the Somali population. However, at this point the cause appears to be related to faulty electrical wiring.
Ahmed Muse, one of the five owners of the Otanga grocery store on the main floor of the building, describes feeling an "electrical shock" strong enough that he was prompted to call the police. Shortly after officers arrived, the explosion happened while Mr. Muse was standing outside with them attempting to explain what had happened. Unfortunately the resulting fire raged out of control immediately despite the presence of first responders prior to the fire and the sub-zero temperatures. It took several hours to put out the blaze, and as I previously mentioned, firefighters have still not been able to safely enter the building. Cedar Avenue, the main thoroughfare on which the building sits, is blocked off because water from the firefighting efforts pooled into the street and froze several inches thick on the street. City workers are trying to find a way to melt the ice, but temperatures are hovering at -7 degrees F in Minneapolis right now.
The victims of the fire likely lost all of their possessions. Somali immigrants who make the long journey to settle in Minneapolis are more often than not people who have fled extreme violence and brutality. Some eventually make their way here from refugee camps in Kenya and other neighboring countries. Many have lost all or part of their families in the civil war in Somalia that lasted from 1991-2006 and the ensuing sectarian violence.
This community rarely makes headlines outside of Minnesota, and the rest of the country knows very little about these people. One of the few stories that entered the national consciousness was the Minneapolis al-Shabab pipeline scandal, which involved local young men being shipped back to Somalia (some by force) to fight for the al-Shabab militant group, as well as fundraising efforts in Minneapolis for the group. The Somali community at large was horrified when this information came to light, and community leaders condemned the situation. After the scandal hit, the Somali community increased its efforts to reach out to and interact with the greater Minneapolis population. Many of us who live in Minneapolis have been living among the Somali community for years. I personally lived across the street from a local Halal market that served as a popular community gathering spot. My own experience with this immigrant community has been mostly positive, but of course cultural issues sometimes arise (most Somali women I encounter are terrified of my 15 lb. Cavalier King Charles Spaniel). The few negative interactions I've had pale in comparison to the exciting conversations I've had and the friendships I've made. I often feel the need to stand up for this often denigrated immigrant population. I know many of them and they are nothing like the caricature of the American-hating terrorist-pirate some people hold in their minds. Some are even born and raised in America. Shocking, right?
I hope to continue to provide updates as they occur, and will be consulting with an acquaintance who is a respected leader in the Somali community, Mohamed Warsame (no relation to city council member Abdi Warsame, it's a common last name). Mohamed serves as an interpreter for many patients at the clinic where I work. Updates are still coming in this morning at a rapid pace.
Current Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak has stated that a fund will be set up to help the victims of the fire, but in the meantime anyone who wishes to help is welcomed to make a donation to the American Red Cross.
This is my first diary! Any suggestions for improvement are appreciated.
11:43 AM PT: Developments are slowly rolling in. I'm not going to link the Star Tribune again because you'll hit a pay wall after reading 5 articles, but to to summarize: crews have been able to carefully enter the building and begin to sort through debris. Homeland security is on-site to rule out the t-word, but now that authorities have had a chance to look inside, they believe a gas explosion most accurately accounts for the initial explosion and the way the fire burned. There are no preliminary signs of arson, but it hasn't been totally discounted either.
I was able to speak to Mohamed. He sounded exhausted and I doubt he got any sleep last night, as he is one of the well-known medical interpreters within the community and probably spent all night at the hospital with the victims and their families. He's going to try to come by tomorrow to discuss his thoughts with me.
3:36 PM PT:A body was found in the debris inside the building. It has not been identified yet (deleted previous update that incorrectly stated it had been identified). Two families were notified of the body; two men are still unaccounted for so it is feared the deceased is one of them. Their names are Mrimri Farah, age 60 and Ahmad Ali, age 57. Mr. Ali lived on the second floor of the building. Investigators have now moved their opinion of where the fire started to either the second or third floor. The local utility company says there were no natural gas leaks in the area at the time of the explosion. Homeland Security has officially ruled out the existence of a bomb.
There is some additional conjecture happening about the cause of the fire, but I will not be posting about it until there is some sort of official confirmation or denial as rumors about this situation have proven to be baseless so far.
Fri Jan 03, 2014 at 7:40 AM PT: More sad news this morning. The two men who were unaccounted for, Ahmad Ali, age 57 who lived on the second floor of the building, and his visiting friend Mrimri Farah, age 60 are most likely the one unidentified hospital victim in critical condition and the body that was found in the building. No word yet on which man is which; their families span the globe so we will probably not hear about a positive identification until all of the relatives have been called.
I listened to a short interview on Minnesota Public Radio this morning with one of Farah's relatives. Holding back tears, the man said that Farah has family in London, Somalia and here in Minnesota and all of them keep calling. They are "heartsick," he stated. Another development about Farah being reported is that he served in the U.S. Army during a tour in Iraq. Far from being a "Muslim jihadist," Farah was a hero who fought for our country to protect our freedom.
Please keep the families of these two men in your thoughts today.
Damage to the moqsue next to the burned building is extensive; two feet of water sit in the basement and it may take up to six months to repair the smoke damage and shattered windows. The rabbi of the local Shir Tikvah has offered space for the moqsue's members to use in the meantime, one of many gestures extended by the local community.
In a statement released on January 1st by the Confederation Of Somali Community in Minnesota, executive Mohamed Noor stated; "Noor announced that the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota will have a disaster relief fund open on Thursday, January 2 to accept donations. One hundred percent of donations collected will go to victims and families. For more information, visit CSCM’s website at www.csc-mn.org."
More controversy has arisen between the local gas utility company, Centerpoint Energy, and investigators at the scene. Centerpoint is disputing the possibility that their natural gas could have caused the fire. Investigators disagree.
Newly elected Minneapolis City Council member Ahmed Warsame released his own statement via the Star Tribune; "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."