It was just after midnight Tuesday when a loud bang followed by screaming drew suburban residents of a newly built enclave into the street. They watched, horrified, as neighbours held back a woman flailing as fire consumed her house, killing her seven children and critically injuring her husband.
Investigators spent the day sifting through charred remnants inside the three-storey Halifax house in hopes of uncovering the cause of the blaze. It claimed all the children of a Syrian immigrant couple who recently moved to the neighbourhood from an area outside of Halifax in hopes of improving their English skills and getting jobs.
“It’s the largest loss that we have in our memory,” Halifax deputy fire chief Dave Meldrum said.
Friends of the family identified the husband and wife as Ebraheim and Kawthar Barho, who immigrated from Syria in 2017. Their children were Abdullah, Rana, Hala, Ghala, Mohammed, Rola and Ahmed, and ranged in age from four months to 15 years old.
“The family was lovely. I can’t imagine life without those children,” said Natalie Horne, a member of the volunteer group Hants East Assisting Refugees Team (HEART) Society, which helped sponsor the Barhos.
The Barhos’ arrival in 2017 was met with so much excitement that it was covered in the local paper.
“We’re very thrilled to be in Canada,” Ms. Barho told the Enfield Weekly Press. “We couldn’t imagine how good it is.”
The family’s children were fast to make friends and “have been able to enjoy life as kids should be able to: going to school, riding bicycles, swimming … celebrating birthday parties and hanging out with the neighbours on their porch swing,” according to a statement posted by the HEART Society.
Little was left of that idyllic life by sunrise on Tuesday.
David Beaton had already gone to bed when his wife heard the bang. He got up to investigate and saw the lights of emergency vehicles outside his front door. When he opened it, he felt the heat. Flames were leaping higher than the hydro wires from a house a few doors down. His neighbour, Ms. Barho, was screaming; other neighbours were holding her arms to keep her from running back into the flame-engulfed home.
“She was totally hysterical. It is something that will forever burn in my brain,” Mr. Beaton said. It was later that morning when a firefighter walked over to ask him to take his young son inside so the boy would not see the parade of body bags carried out of house No. 33.
Throughout the day on Tuesday, members of Halifax’s Syrian community and those who support it struggled with the tragedy and with how to help what little remains of the Barho family.
Imam Abdallah Hussein from the Ummah Masjid, the Halifax mosque where the Barhos worshipped, said he visited Mr. Barho in intensive care on Tuesday. “He is over 80-per-cent burned. So he is very, very critical,” he said.
Neighbours reported that Mr. Barho was badly hurt after running into his burning house to try to save his children.
Ms. Barho, the imam said, spent the day crying for her baby, Abdullah.
She’s in shock. It is very hard for her," he said. “She doesn’t have anyone left. So pray for her and for her husband to survive.”
The imam said a funeral for the children will be held once their bodies are released. The mosque is fundraising in order to pay for it.
Loai al-Rafai, co-founder of the Nova Scotia Syrian Society, told The Globe and Mail that dozens of Syrians showed up at the hospital in hopes of somehow helping the family.
Deputy chief Meldrum would not speculate on the cause of the fire, but said there is so far no evidence of suspicious activity. He said crews arrived at the scene of the blaze around 12:40 a.m. on Tuesday and “encountered heavy fires” on the first and second floors of the home. It took multiple hoses, but less than an hour to extinguish the flames.
He was not able to say whether the house was equipped with smoke alarms, but said that the fire code requires one working smoke alarm on every level with a bedroom.
The medical examiner will conduct a separate probe into the deaths.
Several attempts by The Globe to reach the man who appears to own the rental property, according to land-registry documents, were unsuccessful on Tuesday.
The Barhos moved into the house, which is located in a community known as Spryfield, last October. Ms. Horne, the HEART Society volunteer, said the family was actually planning to move out of Spryfield and back to Enfield, where they originally settled, next week. Their children missed their school and their friends, Ms. Horne said.
Councillor Steve Adams represents the neighbourhood where the Barhos lived. He said on Tuesday he felt “sick” and although residents want to help the Barhos, what to do next is unclear.
"We just need to know … how we can help them,” he said.