Kenwick Place resident Pat Sauve said the massive response to a fire and evacuation at her high rise last week was “pure gold.”
After a fire alarm woke her at 1:30 a.m. on Nov. 22 her concern turned to panic when a neighbour arrived and smoke flooded into Sauve’s fourth floor apartment from the hallway.
“I was the one on my balcony hollering, ‘Help me!’” said the 79-year-old. “I got wet cloths for us to cover our faces and we kept going out on the balcony so we could breathe.”
She called 9-1-1 and was told help was on the way.
“I hung up and a fireman was right there, minutes later, with a big light and a mask on.”
The women were guided down a dark stairwell and into the freezing night. Sauve and many of the first evacuees from the lower floors of the 18-storey apartment tower had on little more than pajamas.
A police officer smashed a glass door at the nearby Bayside mall to get them into the warmth. At 2 a.m., 30 minutes after the alarm, volunteers from Victim Services were already on the scene, asking residents what they needed and how they could help.
“Paramedics met us at Bayside and they took my friend to the hospital,” said Sauve, a 36-year resident of Kenwick Place, a downtown high rise known for its unusual boat shape.
In total, 15 people went to Bluewater Health with respiratory complaints and two were admitted.
By 6 a.m. city buses were transporting the evacuees to Lambton College, where city officials hurriedly set up an emergency reception centre. The Red Cross registered the arrivals.
An hour later, the first were on their way to a local hotel and provided with accommodation and food.
“We even got clothing that same day,” said Judy Taylor, 73, who had grabbed only a coat, purse and shoes on the way out.
A firefighter went back up to her apartment and returned with her medication.
“I think they’ve all done a wonderful job,” said Sauve.
“It was very good,” agreed Taylor.
The Fire Marshal later confirmed the fire was caused by a malfunction in a third floor electrical service that damaged the alarm system, elevators and power supply.
A second evacuation was ordered to clear the upper floors after it became clear the building would be unsafe for an extended period.
The challenge was that a high proportion of Kenwick residents are elderly or have disabilities.
“We started on the top floor and, with the help of paramedics, we carried 50 to 75 people down on stair-chairs without incident,” said Sarnia Deputy Fire Chief Bryan Van Gaver.
The building’s owners, Steeves & Rozema Group, offered interim housing at local hotels.
“They could have washed their hands of that part and let everyone’s insurance pay for it, but they are picking up the full cost of the hotels for however long it takes,” said Myles Vanni, executive director at the Inn of the Good Shepherd.
The Inn played a pivotal role by providing meals, clothing and other necessities. Twelve vulnerable residents were immediately given beds at retirement homes owned by Steeves & Rozema.
About 80 Kenwick residents were taken to the Comfort Inn and another 80 to the Drawbridge Inn and the Best Western.
The balance of the building’s 400 tenants bunked with family and friends.
“I’ve been through quite a few disasters in my years of experience but I’ve never seen a response go as smoothly,” said Clarke Boddy, VP of Seniors Living with Steeves & Rozema.
He had nothing but praise for the Primary Control Group of emergency personnel and municipal leaders who orchestrated the evacuations and response.
Members of the Primary Control Group first assembled an hour after the alarm sounded and met repeatedly to ensure all needs were met.
“This was a worst case scenario for a residential apartment because it involved a lot of vulnerable people,” said Cal Gardner, the city’s emergency management co-ordinator.
Ironically, Gardner’s team had staged a mock training exercise involving an evacuation five days earlier. When the real thing arrived they were ready, he said.
“Going floor by floor and carrying all those people was a lot of work, but I can’t imagine an evacuation going better,” said Jeff Brooks, Lambton County’s deputy EMS manager.
Pets were another challenge. At one point firefighters began joking the “boat” building was actually Noah’s Ark.
About 50 animal had to be located, rescued, tagged and transported to the Sarnia and District Humane Society.
In addition to cats and dogs there were birds, rats, rabbits and lizards, said shelter manager Donna Pyette.
“Within an hour, our parking lot was full of people with crates, food, litter boxes, everything. It was very cool, especially when you consider it was midnight on a Sunday.”
Boddy said the fire story wasn’t about a building.
“It’s about the entire Sarnia community. The way the community pulled together was amazing,” he said. “There is a very long list of citizens, businesses and restaurants that have chipped in.”
Sauve, who stayed with family during the crisis, was looking forward to returning to her apartment, a process that has now begun for the displaced.
“I have insurance and I’ll clean what I can,” she said.
“What’s important now is to think positive.”