A blaze that killed five in a 25-storey building with few sprinklers has prompted comparisons to London’s Grenfell fire
Warsame Omar lives on the 15th floor of Minneapolis’s Cedar High apartments, exactly one floor above where a fire started early on Wednesday morning. He woke to find his room full of thick black smoke. The elderly Somali man ran outside to the stairwell, where he vomited. He remembers a black substance coming out of his mouth and nose.
Omar managed to escape alive, but others in the 25-floor public housing complex located in the heart of Minneapolis’s Somali community did not. The fire killed five people, injured at least four more and has sparked an argument in the city about its dilapidated public housing.
In a debate with echoes of Britain’s Grenfell Tower fire, which killed 72 in 2017, the conversation has centered on whether the city has failed to make safe the housing it provides to its poor and vulnerable, essentially putting their lives at risk as it seeks to save money and maintain a system long underfunded by the federal government.
Omar was taken to an emergency room where, he said, doctors removed black smoke from his lungs. Now, many of his belongings and clothing in his home are covered in soot, and he’s worried about how what happened could affect his health.
“I’m not trying to complain but I need help. I need help,” he told the Guardian with the help of a volunteer translator, clutching a report from this ER visit in his hand as he spoke.
Investigators have not determined what caused the fire, which happened during the year’s first major snow storm, though the Minneapolis fire chief, John Fruetel, said he believed it was an accident.
Public attention has begun to center around what Fruetel has acknowledged could have contributed to the rapid spread of the flames: the high rise did not have sprinkler systems above the two lowest floors.
City officials have said that because of the age of the building, which was constructed in 1969, it was not required by city code to have a sprinkler system – but that, some say, is exactly the problem.
“Nobody should have died. A small fire should not have resulted in the death of five people. Because if you’re having such dense housing, there should be a sprinkler system in an apartment building. Even though that may not be required by code, that should be required because Minneapolis public housing authority has a responsibility to provide safe and secure housing to all of its residents,” said Kaaha Kaahiye, a resident of public housing and organizer with Defend Glendale, an advocacy group long critical of the public housing authority (MPHA).
As first reported by Minneapolis Public Radio, the MPHA had identified the need to retrofit its older high rises with sprinkler system in its annual plan, approved in September, which also noted limiting funding and a need for “major reinvestment”.
MPHA did not ask for additional funds from the city for sprinkler systems in its last budget request, according to the office of the Minneapolis mayor, Jacob Frey.
“The federal government is the primary funder of public housing, but funds have been short for decades. With respect to local funding authority, the city of Minneapolis can only approve requests submitted by MPHA,” said the mayor’s spokesperson, Mychal Vlatkovich.
Like many cities across the country, Minneapolis is experiencing an affordable housing crisis, with high demand for urban housing driving a surge in the development of new luxury condos.
The Hennepin county commissioner, Angela Conley, whose district includes the Cedar Riverside neighborhood, where the apartments are located, pointed to what she sees as a problematic discrepancy: new buildings with high rents are required to have sprinkler systems, while older high rises, historically home to immigrants and lower-income populations, have no such requirement.
“So does that tell us that the lives of seniors and vulnerable people and disabled people and people who are lower income in high-rises, are their lives more expendable than people who can afford to live in more expensive, newer condos? Absolutely not. But that’s the message that we get when we know that certain buildings take priority over others,” Conley said.
On Friday, organizers with Defend Glendale met with residents and collected stories. They plan to push MPHA and the mayor to do more to help residents whose apartments were damaged, and to improve fire safety standards at other buildings.
“Black and black Muslims and low-income and disabled people are invisible in a city that says that [it is] anti-Trump and therefore progressive,” says the group’s founder, Ladan Yusuf. “It’s important to know that this could happen anywhere else. And it’s already happened. It happened in Grenfell in England. It’s happening here because politicians and political officials have to be held accountable. It’s important to know that we are one community and that we have to come together to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”
Source: The Guardian