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Extreme cold hampers efforts to battle fire

Thursday 2 Jan 2014 2:33 p.m.

By Jeff Baenen

A billowing fire engulfed a three-story building with several apartments near downtown Minneapolis early Wednesday, sending more than a dozen people to hospitals with injuries - some critical - ranging from burns to trauma associated with falls.

An explosion was reported about 8:15am, and within minutes a fire raged through the building, said Robert Ball, a spokesman for Hennepin County Emergency Medical Services. Paramedics, amid sub-zero temperatures, responded to find victims on the ground, some with injuries that suggested they may have fallen multiple stories.

"It's not clear whether people were pushed out of the building from the explosion, or whether they fell or jumped out of windows to escape," Ball said.

No fatalities have been reported, but authorities weren't sure whether any residents were still inside the building. Its roof had partially collapsed, making it too dangerous for firefighters to enter and sweep the premises, said Assistant Minneapolis Fire Chief Cherie Penn.

Penn said 14 people were taken to hospitals, and six were considered to be critically hurt.

Ten victims, including three in critical condition, were taken to Hennepin County Medical Center suffering from burns, broken bones or both, hospital spokeswoman Christine Hill said.

Penn said victims also were taken to Fairview University hospital, where a spokeswoman said she couldn't release any information.

Officials said it wasn't immediately clear what caused the fire. CenterPoint Energy spokeswoman Becca Virden said there were no natural gas leaks in the area.

Plumes of thick, whitish-gray smoke could be seen rising from the building Wednesday morning, which has a grocery store on the ground floor and two levels of apartments above it. Flames could be seen through third-story windows, and the frigid air was filled was the acrid smell of smoke.

Abdikadir Mohamed, whose uncle owns the grocery store, watched the scene in silence, struggling to put his thoughts into words.

"This is bad," he said.

Firefighting efforts were hampered by the cold weather. 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.

Ball said the frosty conditions were creating an additional set of hazards for the 55 firefighters on the scene.

"While heat-related illnesses are common for firefighters, now you combine that with the rapid onset of frostbite or hypothermia when they come out and they're wet and exposed to bitter cold temperatures," he said.

Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel said the fire was essentially out by late Wednesday afternoon. He said none of the fire crew members was hurt, saying they did a great job under "extreme conditions."

Abdi Warsame, a Minneapolis City Councilman-elect for the area, said the victims were members of the city's large Somali community. He called on other residents to come together to support the victims.

Outgoing Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak told reporters he was "deeply concerned" about the fire.

"I'm also deeply grateful for the firefighters and other crews who came out here and kept it from getting worse," he said.

A mosque that is next door to the gutted building appeared to escape any obvious structural damage. Abdisalam Adam, the imam at Islamic Civic Society of America & Masjid Dar Al-Hijrah, watched the firefighting efforts and said he was praying for those affected by the fire.

"It's devastating and very sad," he said.

The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said it was monitoring the fire in case the mosque was targeted, said MN-CAIR board member Zuhar Ahmed.

AP

Associated Press reporters Erin Gartner in Chicago and Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee contributed to this report.

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