‘Still Unprotected’: 1 year after deadly fire, public housing high-rises are without fire sprinklers

[anvplayer video=”4987125″ station=”998122″]

The last time Abdi Mohamed stood at the base of 630 Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis, heavy black smoke poured from windows on the 14th floor.

Before dawn on Nov. 27, 2019, a fire ripped through the 25-story public housing apartment complex in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, killing five residents.

‘Very tragic night’: 5 dead, 3 hospitalized after Minneapolis high-rise apartment fire

Mohamed’s mother, Nadifa Mohamud, was found in the living room in her one-bedroom apartment.

"Finally, they delivered the news that my mom passed away," he said. "It was really agonizing."

The building, constructed in 1970, is not equipped with a fire sprinkler system. It’s one of more than two dozen high-rise buildings in the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority portfolio that were built before fire codes required sprinklers.

"It bothered me a lot," Mohamed said, recalling the days after the fire when he learned about the lack of sprinklers. "It’s something they should progress on doing."

But with the one-year anniversary of the fire coming this week, the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority has yet to commit to a long-term plan to install sprinklers in its tallest, most vulnerable apartment complexes, despite repeated pleas from tenants, safety experts and lawmakers.

In September, the agency’s board of commissioners approved a plan to install fire suppression systems in six high-rise properties in 2021, at a price tag of more than $5.7 million, according to MPHA’S 2021 capital investment plan.

Following a deadly high-rise fire in 2019, these are the properties the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority has approved to retrofit with fire suppression systems in 2021.

Source: Minneapolis Public Housing Authority 2021 capital investment plan

However, a review of the specific buildings showed only two are over 10 stories tall and 630 Cedar Avenue, where the fire broke out, is not on the list.

"That’s not right," Mohamed said as he quietly shook his head and looked at the floor. "It’s so painful for me to hear that they’re not retrofitting sprinklers in this building that my mom passed away in."

The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority declined an on-camera interview to answer questions about the fire and the agency’s long-term plan for retrofitting all of its outdated properties.

Sprinklers save lives

Minneapolis Fire Department Capt. Paul Nemes knew the building at 630 Cedar Avenue did not have sprinklers when his crew responded on that snowy morning the day before Thanksgiving.

"We’re going to have dozens of fatalities," he remembered thinking. "It was turbulent, violent fire conditions."

Even with those dangerous conditions, the state fire marshal recently concluded "no loss of life would have occurred" had the high-rise been retrofitted with fire sprinklers.

Nemes said his crews would have spent the morning cleaning up water damage.

"Would it have changed things? Certainly," he said.

In the weeks that followed the fire, community leaders and residents demanded changes that would make high-rise buildings safer.

State Fire Marshal report: Sprinklers could’ve saved 5 people killed in 2019 Minneapolis high-rise fire

Minnesota State Rep. Mohamud Noor (D-Minneapolis) led the charge at the state Capitol, introducing a bill that would require the installation of automatic sprinklers over the next 12 years in all existing high-rise buildings that are seven stories and above.

"I didn’t know that they didn’t have sprinklers when the fire happened," Noor said about the building that burned. "That was a wake-up call."

The bipartisan-backed bill, which stalled during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, garnered support from the current Minnesota State Fire Marshal and the National Fire Sprinkler Association.

"I believe it to be the ultimate life safety," sprinkler advocate Tom Brace, who testified on behalf of the legislation, said. "It’s literally on duty 24/7. I think this is an idea whose time has come."

Despite that pressure from the legislature, the housing authority still has not shared a comprehensive plan to retrofit nearly two dozen outdated buildings.

An internal agency draft, obtained by 5 INVESTIGATES, shows sprinklers could be installed in those buildings over the next 10 years. Under that plan, the fire-damaged complex at 630 Cedar Avenue would be retrofitted as early as 2022.

But when asked why the plan has not been shared publicly, a spokesperson said the housing authority cannot commit to that timeline because "what we ultimately do may look different depending on circumstances."

That means the people who live there, including several who are still grieving the loss of their loved ones, do not know when those buildings will have the sprinklers that experts say are desperately needed.

"We don’t want losing a life to a precious beloved one to happen to anybody else," Mohamed said. "We should be marching to the legislature."

Noor, who plans to bring the measure back to the table in 2021, says there is widespread support to make the changes a requirement instead of an option.

"We’re going to have to start doing the work now and not waiting for the next tragic incident," he said.