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Toronto Toronto’s York Memorial high school should be salvageable after six-alarm fire

Firefighters were forced to demolish parts of York Memorial Collegiate Institute Wednesday in efforts to stamp out the last flames of a six-alarm fire and save the remaining structure.

But despite the charred interiors, scarred walls and water damage in the basement – which was almost filled with water – early assessments by engineers are promising, a Toronto Fire Services platoon chief told reporters at the scene. It looks like the building can be saved.

The first of two back-to-back fires erupted Monday afternoon – incidentally, on the school’s 90th anniversary. A second blaze ripped through the school early Tuesday morning.

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By Wednesday, heavy excavation equipment was brought in as a final resort by crews who could otherwise only attack the fire from the outside, owing to the dangerous conditions within the school. The machines clawed into its walls after more than 24 hours of flames, which saw the roof and interior structures partly collapse.

A structural engineer was on site to direct the demolition effort, which helped firefighters extinguish hidden hot spots within walls or under debris.

Decisions about what to tear down were made carefully, said Toronto Fire Captain David Eckerman, by crews who “want to preserve as much of its heritage value as they can.”

The building was given a heritage designation in 1985. Damage to the school’s auditorium and foyer will mean losses to historic features such as the stonework, stained-glass windows and the balcony on the upper level, said Kaitlin Wainwright, the director of programming at Heritage Toronto.

“I really understand on a personal and local level to what that feels like to lose a very significant community landmark and a space that, architecturally, is so splendid,” Ms. Wainwright said.

Students and staff will have to adjust to a new environment for the remainder of the year, as they will be relocated to neighbouring George Harvey Collegiate Institute.

That school, home to about 500 students, fortunately has the room to host another 900 from York Memorial, but staff will have to sort out the logistics of sharing the space and facilities, said Shari Schwartz-Maltz, a spokeswoman for the Toronto District School Board.

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Classes are cancelled for the remainder of the week to give staff the time to plan, Ms. Schwartz-Maltz said, adding that Grade 12 students will still be on track to graduate.

The Toronto Fire investigation team will surrender the scene to the provincial Office of the Fire Marshal to determine the cause of the fire.

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