Feature Story                                                                                                   Tuesday, June 16, 2015


In the Heat of the Night

Suspicious fire destroys apartment block

Staff/Voice photos


The Chilliwack Fire Department calls this fire at Mary St Apartments at 4 a.m. on Monday, suspicious. RCMP look to the public for information. Below, crews hit the fire with multiple jets of water.


hen the Chilliwack Fire Department got the call Monday that a fire had broken out in a three-storey apartment complex in the 9200-block of Mary Street, it was already a raging inferno.


Engine No. 4 arrived first just after 4 a.m. A lone firefighter quickly reeled out a hose and coupled it to a nearby hydrant. Then grabbed it and pushed back the conflagration with jet of water.


A short time later, a full contingent of firefighters were on-scene. But by then, a sheet of flames had swallowed the top floor, tearing through five suites in less than 15 minutes.


Almost every available piece of firefighting equipment from the City of Chilliwack Fire Department was brought into service. More crews arrived and rushed to battle the blaze as it spread up the roof and into the now-empty suites.


Firefighters climbed ladders to a corner suite and worked frantically under flames to get a hose up and tied to a railing.


All the residents somehow miraculously got out of the burning structure, with the help of RCMP and fire crews. Mounties ran in the lobby and helped a senior couple to safety that had still not escaped.


A resident was coughing hysterically.


"Come on over to the paramedics, sweetheart, they'll help you,” I said.


I motioned to the medics the woman needed oxygen. They immediately sat her down and took her pulse.


Another senior struggled to tote her cat out in a carrier.


"Here, let me take that, it looks heavy," I said. "Where are you going?"


"Just over there," she said, relieved that she had help to carry her pet.


Meanwhile, dozens of people stood on the street wrapped in blankets watching in horror and disbelief as their homes went up in flames. Some cried, others screamed as they remembered pets they left behind.


Firefighters scaled the side of the building and worked under flames to secure a hose on a third floor balcony. Below, Victim Services works to get the residents registered for emergency assistance.


Some residents reported crawling to safety on their hands and knees underneath the deadly toxic smoke.


Dave Oppenheim, 79, and his wife made it to safety. He had to move as fast as he could, and didn't even have time to grab his dentures. Burning debris rained down on them as they exited via the front stairs. His wife was taken to hospital suffering from smoke inhalation.


"Burning embers fell all around us. My wife went with the medics, but I had to wait behind to see about getting my vehicles out from underneath the building. I have the garage opener right here," he said holding up the chain around his neck.


But by then it was too late, the power was already off. In fact, power went out briefly for blocks in the area.


"It will be quite a while before you can get your vehicle," the Fire Chief told him. "There's no electricity and we can't open the gate."


Crews pumped parallel streams of water from the ground, and one from the ladder truck, on the stubborn blaze for hours eventually managing to knock the flames down.


A Special Olympian, who also lived in the building, was overwhelmed and crying because she had to leave her cat behind.


"My cat, my cat," she said as she ran up and threw her arms around me.


"They'll get your cat, I said. "No worries, sweetie."


"Will they?" she cried out. "Please."


Later, her mother said she's just gotten her new Special Olympics team uniform.


"They'll get it out for her," I told her.


Resident Dave Oppenheim, 79, asks police about his vehicles under the apartment building.


"I hope so, then we can just wash it. She's high functional and she lives all on her own, but this is a lot for her to process," said the girl's mother.


One resident left the building swaddled in a blanket. She had to evacuate so fast, that she too left her dentures.


"I crawled out on my hands and knees," she said covering her hand with her mouth.


Most tenants got out with nothing, not even their shoes, but some had the wherewithal to grab purses and wallets as they struggled to get to the stairs and out.


A pair of newlyweds was trying to be upbeat about losing everything in the blaze, because they had coverage.


"My husband says it will be like a shopping spree," she said wiping back the tears.


"I work at Stream. We got out and we have each other. I'm just glad we had insurance," he said. "Do you know of any apartments to rent?"


A 65-year-old man, who lived with his wife underneath the suite where the fire first started, told The Voice he could hear a couple arguing.


"I was awake, but my wife was asleep. It got so bad, I almost called the cops," he said. "I could hear him telling her to get out."


Initial reports were that there was an explosion, but the man said that's not what happened.


"It sounded like a thud, like someone dropped something heavy on the floor," he explained. "Then the fire started and alarms were going off and we got out of there. Thanks to the police — they helped my wife."



City of Chilliwack Victims Services and Emergency Preparedness coordinators were quick on the scene and set up a registration table in the old Safeway parking lot with coffee and donuts for ousted residents.


It's not known exactly how many tenants were displaced by the fire. Most huddled together as waited for the city bus to take them to the Comfort Inn for three days of food and lodging.


Fire crews were on the scene until about 1:30 p.m. at which point they left it in the RCMP's hands.


Assistant Fire Chief Mike Bourdon said in a release later that firefighters responded from Halls 1, 2, 4, 5 & 6.


"The fire was quickly brought under control although the entire roof structure was severely damaged in the fire," said Bourdon. "All tenants evacuated safely from the building, however one firefighter sustained a minor injury while fighting the fire and was taken to hospital for further observations."


RCMP are investigating the blaze and seeking the public’s assistance to identify witnesses.


"General Duty officers arrived and immediately entered a burning apartment building evacuating residents of the first floor to safety, followed moments later by Chilliwack Fire Department, who completed the evacuation of the second and third floors," said RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Mike Rail in a release Monday.


“There was concern raised when one of the residents from the complex could not be found at the time of the fire. We are relieved to say that everyone from the building is now accounted for and thankful no one was injured,” he said.


Investigators from Chilliwack Serious Crime Section, RCMP Forensic Identification Section, and the Chilliwack Fire Department continue to look into the cause of the fire.


“The origin of the fire is suspicious in nature, and police believe the fire was targeted” said Cpl. Mike Rail.


Anyone with any information about this is asked to contact Chilliwack RCMP at 604 792 4611 or, should you wish to remain anonymous, Crime Stoppers at 1 800 222 8477 (TIPS), or www.chilliwackcrimestoppers.ca


See more photos below.



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