The 911 calls came quickly as firefighters worked their way through flames and heavy smoke to rescue tenants and stop a blaze at a North York highrise. At first, there was official relief that everyone had been accounted for and that no one had been seriously hurt. But as preliminary investigations began early Saturday, a person was discovered dead on an eighth-floor balcony.
“That’s tragic. It’s unfortunate. It breaks my heart,” said Toronto fire Chief Matthew Pegg. “But like I said last night, to the very best of my knowledge and the knowledge of all of us on the ground, we didn’t believe that to be the circumstance.”
Standing in front of 235 Gosford Blvd., a 16-storey apartment building near Jane Street and Steeles Avenue West, Pegg explained that live updates come with the understanding that information can change. At no time Friday did fire crews have any indication that someone was missing, he said. He expressed his condolences to “all of those affected by the tragic loss.”
In the aftermath of the fire, hundreds of residents have been displaced. York University has stepped in to offer emergency shelter as of Sunday, but officials are not sure when residents will be allowed to return to their homes, leaving many families in a state of uncertainty.
Pegg said Friday’s blaze was a demanding and complex situation for the 100 firefighters involved. The search for occupants began immediately and “never stopped,” he said, as an “extraordinary” number of 911 calls were filtered down to the command post and crews moved door to door. Six residents were rescued and treated, with one taken to hospital in stable condition.
The circumstances of Friday’s fire were such that the “safest, most efficient and effective” option was to deploy firefighters inside, he said. Because of heavy flames in Unit 808 — where the blaze began — crews were unable to enter that apartment and adjacent units for a “primary search.” It was unclear if the person found on the balcony of that unit had called 911. Pegg did not believe crews had “specific information” about a person there.
The identity of the victim has not been released, and the cause of the fire is still under investigation. Toronto police Insp. Jim Gotell said there is no reason to believe the death involves any foul play or criminal activity. The victim was taken to the coroner’s building, where a post-mortem examination will be completed. On Saturday, investigators from the office of the Ontario Fire Marshal were working to determine the cause and spread of the fire, along with Toronto Fire Services and police. The investigation is ongoing.
Charles Jansen, director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, said residents should stay with family and friends if they can, but tenants were also directed to the Driftwood Community Centre, where the Red Cross and the city were helping those in need of shelter, food and supplies. While initial reports said the building is home to around 700 residents, Jansen said approximately 354 people have been displaced, and 100 have registered at the centre.
As of Sunday, York University is opening emergency shelter facilities in a gymnasium and vacant dorm rooms. Jansen said families and children will have priority in the dorms, and said there is a city-owned building close to the university in case more people need shelter. Jansen said that residents “typically” have tenant insurance, and the building itself is looking into what it can do to assist.
“We want to make sure it’s perfectly safe before we bring anybody back in,” he said. “Until then we’ll certainly be looking after their needs.”
Yaacop Joseph, his wife Nazek Mero and their two sons had lived in a unit in the lower part of the building for four years, after coming to Canada from Syria, via Jordan.
“My country is fire,” Joseph said, wearing a “Canada” ball cap in the driver’s seat of the car. “Here is, too.”
When the alarm went off while Mero was preparing dinner, Joseph said they needed to leave, but Mero refused, and told him she would die there. Pointing to the smoke, he convinced her, and the family left. They were able to return for a few essentials much later that night.
Joseph, 61, pulled out his phone to show a photo of his recent Canadian citizenship ceremony. It was a momentary distraction from the yellow fire tape outside their building. Mero’s cousin Jenan Mnayarji — who made room for the family of four inside her apartment Friday night — was also frustrated by a lack of answers. To see someone in need, “our heart couldn’t hold it,” she said. “We try to do our best; whatever we can do, we do.”
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She knew how upset her cousin was. Mero said she feels like a refugee again. “She wants to go home,” Mnayarji said.
Many of the tenants have lived in the building for decades. Henrietta Obeng, 19, has lived there since birth. She said the building is a friendly place where “everybody knows everybody.” On Saturday, the question “When can we go home?” was one that no one could answer. Richard Derstroff, with the office of the Ontario Fire Marshal, said there is “significant damage” from smoke and fire from the seventh to the ninth floor, and noted that the eighth floor will be “inaccessible for a significant period.” Just how long that will be is unclear. The 1,500 residents displaced from a devastating fire at 650 Parliament Street in August 2018 are still not back in their building, and the latest update shows a return date of 2020 at the earliest.
The damage to the North York building was evident on the rear of the structure, where you could see twisted metal door frames, broken windows, charred brick and scorched balconies, along with rust-coloured icicles left over from the firefighters’ battle. Many of the units appeared unaffected, with window dressings intact and Christmas lights in place. Maria Nassimi, who lives on the fifth floor, stayed in her unit until 2 a.m. to clean up the water damage as crews worked to extinguish the blaze. Another man said he and his family stayed until 4 a.m. He didn’t want to give his name but said he was staying at the Driftwood community centre, and they were taking “good care” of his family.
On Saturday, a steady stream of people came to the community centre with water, snacks and takeout containers that left a trail of steam in the cold air. Many were told food couldn’t be processed at the centre, but they could donate it privately.
Gaya Siba brought a few cases of water and snacks. She doesn’t know anybody, but just felt compelled to do something. “It’s really hard,” she said.