The Toronto District School Board is suing the province, city and police, saying emergency workers neglected to manage and contain a massive fire that tore through one of its schools two years ago. The board also alleges they covered up wrongdoing.
In a statement of claim filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on Wednesday, the school board said that damages anticipated to be around $90-million could have been avoided had the fire at York Memorial Collegiate Institute in May, 2019, been properly handled.
The six-alarm blaze at York Collegiate burned for more than 24 hours and displaced some 900 students and staff. There were no injuries. The fire, which the Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal ruled as accidental, happened only weeks before a celebration to the mark the school’s 90th anniversary.
The building, which was considered a historic site, sustained “catastrophic damage” and the school year was disrupted for students and staff, according to the statement of claim.
“The defendants failed to exercise and ensure proper care, control, supervision of the fire scene and the building so as to ensure the safety of persons and property,” the statement of claim said.
None of the allegations has been proved in court.
In a statement on Wednesday, the City of Toronto said that while it normally does not comment on matters before the courts, it did so “after reviewing the unfounded allegations.”
“Staff took all appropriate steps to preserve evidence, and allegations in the claim that suggest otherwise are patently untrue and irresponsible,” the city said. “It is unconscionable that the TDSB and its insurers would impugn the integrity of Fire Chief Matthew Pegg and other Toronto Fire Services staff in this manner.”
Karen Falconer, interim director of education for the TDSB, said on Wednesday that while the TDSB and its insurers “had hoped to resolve this matter outside of court, we were left with no choice but to take legal action.”
The board would rebuild the school regardless of the outcome, she said, adding that the cost is covered by the insurer, which is part of the lawsuit. “In the meantime, our focus remains on supporting the 900 students and staff that were sadly displaced by the fire two years ago,” Ms. Falconer said.
Jesse Robichaud, a spokesman for the Ontario Attorney-General, said it was not served with a statement of claim even though it was named as a defendant in the court filing.
In early May, 2019, a fire alarm was triggered on the second floor auditorium of the building, and Toronto Fire Services, Toronto Police Service and the Ontario Fire Marshal were all called to the scene. The visible fire was extinguished and it was deemed under control, but the area was not checked for any residual fire, which would allow it to rekindle, according to the lawsuit.
“The TFS did not post a fire watch at the building. The TFS assumed that the fire was out and that a fire watch was not required,” the statement of claim said.
Later that evening, when the OFM investigator and TFS were escorted by school board staff to turn off electricity in the building, the investigator noted the room was “unusually warm,” but it was not addressed any further, the lawsuit said.
The statement of claim noted that TDSB security were instructed by police to guard the building overnight, which was an “improper delegation of police duties that they were under a statutory obligation to carry out themselves or directly supervise.”
“TPS then abandoned the building without ensuring a proper, reasonable, adequate fire watch was in place at material times,” the statement of claim said.
Early the next morning, a school board security guard noticed a flicker of light in the auditorium window and called Toronto Fire. “A working fire was discovered beneath the auditorium stage which then spread quickly below and behind the stage area,” the statement of claim said. “The fire ultimately developed into a six-alarm fire.”
The school board has alleged that the defendants went on to “mislead, misrepresent and suppress evidence of their negligence and gross negligence.”
In particular, the OFM contacted the TFS by phone to give them a " ‘heads up as a professional courtesy’ that the OFM had reached a conclusion as to the cause of the fire and that ‘it would not look good on the TFS,’ " according to the lawsuit.
TFS said it had not yet sent the OFM all documents related to the fire, including some of the statements from firefighters. According to the statement of claim, after receiving that phone call, “certain of the narrative entries in the TFS incident report in respect of the May 6, 2019, fire were modified in an effort to suppress evidence of negligence on the part of the TFS.”
About two months later, Chief Pegg met with the Fire Marshal’s office, headed by his brother, Jon Pegg, to discuss concerns about the conduct of TFS in response to the initial fire, according to the lawsuit. The statement of claim said that as a result of that meeting, “the final report of the OFM report was drafted so as to downplay, mislead, conceal and suppress evidence of negligence and gross negligence on the part of the TFS and OFM.”
The report failed to address a number of points that rekindled the blaze, according to the lawsuit, including that no action was taken after an OFM investigator noted a room was “unusually warm” and no emergency worker provided a fire watch on site overnight.
“Had the TFS, OFM or TPS ensured that a proper fire watch was in place inside the building by trained fire watch personnel equipped with proper PPE [personal protective equipment], the rekindled fire would have been identified and extinguished, so that the damages being claimed in this case would have been avoided,” the statement of claim said.
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