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Investigators: Possible gas leak in Minn. fire

January 2, 2014
Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Authorities are looking at a possible natural gas leak as the cause of an explosion and fire at a Minneapolis apartment complex that injured more than a dozen people, the city's fire chief said Thursday.

Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel said authorities are focusing on a possible gas leak because witnesses reported a smell. He said the debris field from the blast also points to a gas explosion, though the cause of the fire remains unclear.

Fruetel said two people remained unaccounted for from the Wednesday fire, which injured 14 people. At least three people remained in critical condition on Thursday.

The fire was reported Wednesday morning at the three-story building that houses a grocery store and apartments.

Ten victims were taken to Hennepin County Medical Center, where three people remained in critical condition and six in satisfactory on Thursday, hospital spokeswoman Christine Hill said. One person has been released. The victims suffered burns, broken bones or both.

Fire officials said six people were critically injured and some victims were taken to Fairview University hospital, where spokeswoman Jennifer Amundson said Thursday she could not release any information.

No fatalities have been reported, but authorities were still not sure Thursday whether any residents were inside. The building's roof had partially collapsed, making it too dangerous for firefighters to enter on Wednesday, but crews were beginning the process of debris removal on Thursday.

"Crews will be very cautious and deliberate as they go through the structure," Assistant Fire Chief Cherie Penn said in a statement Thursday.

Abdi Warsame, a Minneapolis City Councilman-elect for the area, said the victims are members of the city's large Somali community.

Abdirizak Bihi, a local Somali who has provided social services to residents in the building in the past, said anywhere from two to four people remained unaccounted for on Thursday.

"We don't know exactly who is missing, the exact number, but we know that people are unaccounted for," he said.

Bihi said he was familiar with the building and that it was routinely busy on weekends or holidays, when people gathered to socialize or play cards.

"The place is usually packed," he said.

He said at least a few community elders are among the building's residents, and at least three residents were out of town at the time of the fire.

Wednesday's firefighting efforts were hampered by the frigid cold. As firefighters aimed their hoses at the flames, water gushed from windows and doorways, forming icicles on window frames and leaving the street slick and icy.

The facade of the building and trees out front were also coated with a layer of ice. Fruetel said no fire crew members were hurt, adding that they did a great job under "extreme conditions."

Mohamud Noor, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, said his group is opening a fund to collect donations for victim and families.

"This is a horrible tragedy," Noor said in a statement. "We stand together to help families both in the immediate aftermath and in the days, weeks and months to come."

Noor asked the community to support families as the search for the missing continues.

"We pray that they are found and can resume their lives," he said.


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