Fruetel said the fire had been burning for a while and had blown out windows by the time firefighters arrived. A fire alarm was sounding throughout the building, and from a distance, flames could be seen extending 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.5 meters) from windows on the 14th floor.
With those open windows and winds whipping in from an overnight wintry storm, the scene was “an extreme environment of heat and wind-driven fire,” he said.
“I can’t express more about how precarious that scenario was to those firefighters,” Fruetel said. “They encountered a lot of heat … It was very similar to a blast furnace.”
The chief called it “a very chaotic scenario,” and said firefighters had to climb multiple flights of stairs while people were coming down. He said residents on floors above the fire were told to shelter in place.
Abdi Warsame, a City Council member who toured the floor that burned, expressed amazement that more people weren’t killed. The 25-story building caters to seniors and singles.
“It was absolutely gutted,” said Warsame, who is Somali-American. “It was horrendous.”
Authorities haven’t released the identities of the five victims, but said they were all adults. Three other people were injured and are being treated at local hospitals. Authorities have not released details of their conditions. A firefighter was treated for an exertion-related injury, Fruetel said.
The fire broke out around 4 a.m. on the 14th floor of the Cedar High Apartments. Fruetel said firefighters found heavy smoke on the 16th and 17th floors as residents were evacuated through the stairwells.
Mayor Jacob Frey, in a Facebook post in English and Somali, called the fire “devastating.”
The building is part of a complex known as The Cedars. Minneapolis Public Housing Authority spokesman Jeff Horwich said Cedar High has 191 apartments, all one-bedroom or studio units. There were 198 residents living in the building at the time of the fire.
Abdirahman Shire, 53, of Minneapolis, said his 74-year-old mother lives alone on the 13th floor. She told him that she was alerted to the fire by the smell of smoke, and that she ran down the stairs to escape.