Explosion victims comforted by the kindness of good neighbours

Fire survivor Barb Brennan, centre front, stands flanked by friends Marie Duncan and Beth Hystead and surrounded by caring neighbours in front of her burned out home on Kathleen Avenue. Glenn Ogilvie

Cathy Dobson

Barb Brennan awoke to the explosion about 3:30 a.m. on Aug. 28.

Lying in her second-storey bedroom at 277 Kathleen Ave. she at first suspected a backfiring car. But the entire house had shaken. A smoke detector went off and she rushed to the window.

“Next, is just a blur,” said Brennan, a widow in her late 80s who lived alone. “I saw flames and grabbed my housecoat. Someone was banging on my front door.”

On the front step was next-door neighbour Brandon Pook, a 50-year-old painter whose house was also in flames. His van, parked between the two buildings, was engulfed.

Investigators later determined the fire started in Pook’s van but the damage was so extensive a cause couldn’t be confirmed.

Barefoot and in shock, Brennan crossed the street to the home of her long-time neighbour, Beth Hystead.

“I sat down on her front steps and watched as my house went up in flames,” she said.

Brennan and her late husband John had bought the home in 1956 and raised their three children there.

“I remember thinking someone should pinch me,” she recalled.  “Suddenly I had nothing but my nighty and my bathrobe. I know it sounds stupid, but I worried about my little Heintzman piano.”

Within minutes of the explosion Kathleen Avenue between Russell and East streets was abuzz with firefighters and emergency personnel. Sirens and flashing lights filled the block.

Despite the devastation, no one had been injured by either the explosion or house fires. Even all of Pook’s pets, including a dog, cat and two bearded dragons, were rescued.

“The fireman asked if there was anything he could get out of the house for me,” Brennan recalled.

A little later, the firefighter returned with her purse, glasses and a wet pair of sneakers. Then they retrieved a jewellery box, passport and legal papers from the burning house. Other than some dishes and a basement chest containing family photos, everything was lost.

“I cannot believe the help of the fire, the police, all of the emergency people,” she said. “They really went the extra mile.”

That night, Brennan and Pook also learned the meaning of a close-knit neighbourhood.

“This is a street where we are there for each other,” Brennan said.  “We’re friendly and we know everyone’s name.”

At least 10 of the residents have lived on the block for most of their lives, including her close friend Marie Duncan. Many were outside, in their pajamas, ensuring everyone was safe and bringing food, even ice cream bars, to the firefighters on a very hot summer night.

“We’re here for our neighbours when they need us,” said Leigh Hathaway, a Kathleen Avenue resident the past 30 years. “People stay because it’s just a great block. I wanted to do something that night, so I brought muffins.”

“We’re all still reeling from this,” said Adelle Richards, another neighbour of 25 years.

“After the fire, we knew we wanted to do something to support the homeowners and their families.”

They came up with a neighbourhood barbecue and boot toll held last Saturday. Using firemen’s boots, they collected funds from motorists at each end of the block.

Brennan’s burned out home will be demolished. She was insured, though, and has decided to rebuild.

“For something so awful to happen, things are certainly falling into place,” she said.

At press time, Pook said he was facing a lot of uncertainty. He was still awaiting a structural engineer’s report and hoping his insurance company would come through for him. A family member started a crowdfunding page for him at https://www.gofundme.com/brandon-pook039s-tragic-house-fire.

“I love this street,” Pook said. “I’ve lived on Kathleen for 17 years and, if I can, I’ll go back.”