Smoke inside the hallway of the Lions Manor seniors complex was already thick as Nick Coles and another volunteer struggled to help get a man in a wheelchair out of his apartment.
“The smoke was starting to change to black. You could hear the fire. Like a crackling campfire times a hundred,” said Coles. “It was coming. It was getting louder.”
The two men tipped the senior back in his wheelchair and managed to carry the chair through a side door of the building before the smoke grew overwhelming.
Then they heard someone shouting from a fourth-floor apartment – a woman with a broken leg in a cast out on her balcony. Coles and the other Good Samaritan scaled the building from the outside while black smoke poured from the building. As the fire started to pick up speed, neighbours arrived with a ladder. The two men were helping manoeuvre the woman on to the ladder when firefighters arrived and took over.
It wasn’t until afterwards that the impact of being in the smoke-filled building hit him. “All of a sudden I couldn’t breathe.”
Coles was taken to hospital and checked for smoke inhalation but later released.
Coles and several other bystanders, including Deep Cove resident Euan Crawford and two construction workers, are being credited with heroic actions after fire erupted at the 60-unit housing complex Tuesday afternoon.
Coles was about to have lunch in a Deep Cove backyard when “I saw this huge orange rolling flame,” he said.
He ran to the scene and by the time he got there. “The flames were huge,” he said. “They must have been 10 feet above the roof.”
Coles said he didn’t think twice before running into the building. “I just ran in there,” he said. “I thought to myself that I couldn’t go to sleep that night if somebody perished in that fire and I didn’t at least try to get people out.”
Eight people were taken to hospital for smoke inhalation and later released, but all of the residents were safely evacuated from the building Tuesday afternoon.
Stephanie Alexandra, who lives in the Lions complex, was home in her fourth-floor apartment when the fire alarm went off. Alexandra said she looked out into the hallway and saw the manager knocking on doors, telling people to get out. When the manager opened the door to an apartment across the hall, where one of her neighbours was away, “black smoke came billowing out immediately,” she said.
Residents said the fire appeared to start on the top floor in the centre of the housing complex.
Evacuees were taken to an emergency reception centre at Parkgate Community Centre.
But challenges for those affected by the fire and their families may only just be starting.
While most residents had their personal possessions covered by tenants’ insurance and the building itself will likely be restored, that will take time.
Most of the building has extensive water damage.
“We’re being told by the restoration company it will be an extended period of time,” said Dennis Simpson, general manager of the Mount Seymour Lions Housing Society.
Residents were told at a meeting Wednesday it could be eight months to a year before the building can be occupied again, said Fiona Dercole, director of the North Shore Emergency Management Office.
The building is a provincially subsidized housing complex, so seniors living there only had to pay 30 per cent of their income towards rent. Now those seniors are suddenly homeless in a community with virtually no affordable housing.
Most are staying with family and friends for now but “in most of those cases that’s not a permanent solution,” said Dercole.
Ashley Swartz and her 88-year-old mother Elizabeth Ann are among those scrambling to find housing. Swartz said her mom is currently staying with her in a small apartment, but that’s not a long-term solution given Swartz’s own multiple sclerosis, which limits her ability as a caregiver. “There’s nothing on the North Shore,” she said. “There’s a two-year wait-list and my mom’s 88.”
Leah Sand is facing a similar dilemma finding housing for her mother Marie Scarlett, 73, who has mobility challenges.
Sand said families were provided with leads for available apartments, but some on the list had rents of $4,000 per month.
Sand said her mom is staying with her in her one-bedroom apartment, but the walk-up is difficult for her mom to manage. “I wish I had a bigger place so it would be more comfortable for my mom, but I don’t,” she said. “It’s a very stressful situation.”
Those without nearby family or friends or who have no way to pay for immediate shelter have been transferred to a care facility in Coquitlam until Monday, said Dercole.
BC Housing has promised to “fast track” applications from residents of the seniors’ complex, Dercole added. The BC Seniors Living Association is also asking care facilities in the Lower Mainland about availability.
The Parkgate Community Services Society has set up an account for those who wish to contribute financially to residents of the complex.
Sand has also set up a GoFundMe account under Lion’s Manor Fire Victims Fund and plans to give the money collected there to the Parkgate Community Services Society for distribution.
Anyone with housing or other offers of help can contact organizers at email@example.com.