Last week Ontario’s fire marshal’s office announced the high-rise fire that caused the evacuation of residents of 650 Parliament St. in August last year was sparked by a “catastrophic failure” in the building’s electrical room, causing an explosion.
Residents are still waiting to return to their homes, as they recall that night more than a year ago.
Families with young children, elderly residents, students, immigrants and people from all backgrounds were displaced last year. The fire did not discriminate.
Tyler Olton, a biology student at Ryerson University, remembers the explosion and the events that followed after, changing his life.
Olton was in the shower when the fire alarm went off. At first, he thought it was just a test. The alarm continued to ring, so he got dressed quickly and went into the hallway to inspect the scene.
He lived right beside the electrical box on the ninth floor. He saw the fire and smoke coming from its direction, right outside his door.
“People were screaming and running around in the hallway, he said. “More people were running outside trying to get to a safe spot.”
Olton went from having a home to sleeping in his friend’s car to sleeping at another friend’s house and to couch surfing. Ryerson University provided him and other displaced students one-month free residence on campus .
“Financially speaking, I lost a tremendous amount of money because I had to replace clothes, furniture, my bed — the list continues,” he said.
“It was pretty clear that management was kind of like at fault,” he said. “The way that management kind of dealt with this was needless to say unprofessional and not necessarily in the favour of the tenants.”
Olton is also worried about a rent hike, yet hopeful for return to the building.
Cynthia Himlin, a co-founder of the 650 Parliament Residents’ Association, lived in the building with her now senior mother for many years.
The fire motivated her and other residents to form a tenant association to “address tenants’ needs because of the fire and also to ensure their needs and rights are upheld once they return to the building,” she said.
Himlin said that there are two parties involved beyond the tenants: the building owners and the building managers.
“The building managers are the ones that the tenants tend to interact with more frequently and the building owners have been sort of distant from interactions with the tenants, as far as I know,” she said.
“For some tenants the relationship with the management was a positive one, and for others it was a contentious one,” she said.
Christopher Bye, another former resident of the building who was displaced last year with his two cats, Buddy and Pearl, lived on the building’s eighth floor for 15 years.
Bye was also home when the fire erupted last year. He remembers the night as “very dark.”
He remembers the fire alarm ringing and firefighters escorting residents in the hallway. Bye said his neighbours, two elderly ladies, were trying to bring as much food as possible in plastic bags with them.
“The firemen finally said, ‘No, you can’t! Just take what you need!’ And they started to cry. They went down ahead of us and walked very slow. It was a terrible thing,” he said.
When it was his turn to leave, Bye searched for his two cats but he couldn’t find one of them.
“I sat on the couch and I started to cry. I waited for the firemen to come and knock on the door. They forgot about me,” he said.
Although he was upset, Bye was glad that the firemen did not come back for him.
“I was just concerned that I could spend the night there and in the morning light I could get us out,” he said. ” I did manage to find a candle and find [one] cat.”
Bye said 11 residents, including himself, were housed at the Winchester Square, a seniors’ residence on 55 Bleecker St.
As for other residents, Bye said the City and Red Cross took care of them for the first two weeks, providing residents with gift cards, food and information. After that, they lost their hotel rooms.
When he was allowed back in with other residents, Bye packed up his kitchen supplies like his microwaves, rice cooker, pots, pans and any of the dry goods that hadn’t been thrown out.
Bye lost one of his cats at Winchester Square when he moved out. He is hoping to move to a permanent living space and move on from the displacement.
Alodee Adriana lived in the building with her sister for seven years.
“Living in that building for several years, we are accustomed to just ignore fire alarms. But, this time it was different,” said Adriana
“It was very dark and scary,” she said.
Separated from family
Adriana lived on the ground floor and she remembers seeing all her neighbours outside. She got dressed very quickly, grabbed her purse and left.
“I talked to the lady who cleans the building and she said that she was cleaning the basement and heard a loud explosion then the lights went off,” she said.
She said the displacement after the fire disrupted her life.
“It was emotional torture, having to stay at friends’ house and not being able to sleep in your own bed. I missed my family because we had to split up so we won’t be a big bother to our friends,” Adriana said.
Adriana’s family moved into a new apartment in October of last year and they repurchased couches, beds, fans, and an air conditioner.
“[Management] offered to pay us $5,000 for all of our stuff inside. That is not enough,” Adriana said.
“Red Cross mostly helped us. Giving us weekly Wal-Mart gift cards, so we can buy groceries,” she said. “They also handed out adult metro passes for the month of August.”
The building was home to many immigrant families, some of whom had language barriers, Hamlin noted.
“As somebody who’s Canadian born and raised, I’ve lived around immigrant families my whole life and know that they are susceptible to be victimized, so it’s important that we provide the sort of information they need that is best for them,” she said.
“This is not an immigrant issue. It’s not a poverty issue. This is a building maintenance issue and a profit before people issue.”
The 650 Parliament Residents’ Association is hopeful for residents to return to their homes. They hope to be advocates for the former tenants living at 650 Parliament St. and facilitate a positive relationship all the way around, Himlin said.
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