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The Globe and Mail

Fire that killed four seniors at Toronto public housing complex was arson: officials

A fire that killed four people at a seniors' public housing complex in Toronto last year was arson, officials have concluded.

The blaze began in leather chairs at the intersection of two hallways on the fifth floor of the building in Scarborough on Feb. 5. Another dozen people, many of whom had mobility problems and were trapped in their rooms, were taken to hospital.

"Through the investigative process, we have determined it was deliberately set," said Jeff Tebby, fire investigation co-ordinator for the Ontario Fire Marshal. "The chairs on the fifth floor were ignited. They were the fuel on the fire."

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In a statement, Toronto Community Housing, which owns the 126-unit building, said it was "shocked and deeply saddened" to learn the fire was deliberately set. The agency said it is co-operating with the investigation.

Nanthivarman Kamal, a 36-year-old resident of the building, was flabbergasted when a Globe and Mail reporter informed him the fire was deliberately started.

"That's terrifying," he said. "How come someone would do such a thing to a seniors' building? They can't even walk fast. Most people here are living immobile."

Mr. Kamal lives with and helps take care of his mother who is in her 70s and was there the day the fire broke out. He said he swiftly left the building and returned home the same evening.

Residents routinely ignore fire alarms because they are set off so often, he said, using the example of people forgetting about meals they were cooking.

"People get used to it and don't leave. They don't take it seriously."

Jean Fairney, 86, has lived in the building since it first opened in 1991. She did not leave her room when the fire swept through because she was repeatedly instructed not to by building staff, she said.

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"I came in after shopping about 15 minutes before the alarm went off and they just said 'Stay in your apartment, do not go out into the hallways.' I have a big window, so I thought, 'If it gets this far, I'll just haul out the window.' "

The fire started in the hallway of her former apartment. She has since moved to another floor, she said.

"That scared me. Who would do something like that? It's scary. It was scary that day."

Toronto Fire Services previously charged Toronto Community Housing with three violations of the provincial fire code, including permitting the combustible chairs to be placed in an exit route. The social housing provider also faces a charge of failing to train supervisory staff in fire emergency procedures and failing to implement the building's approved fire safety plan. The charges are before the courts.

Toronto Police are investigating the blaze. Spokesman Mark Pugash said no information was available on a possible suspect.

Residents who were living in the area of the building where fire occurred were displaced for four to five weeks, said Lisa Murray, a TCH spokesperson.

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TCH is contesting all charges, she said.

"There's a large alcove and that's where the chairs were. And, in fact, the chairs had been there since the building was built and we never heard anything about not having them there. If we did, we would have removed them."

The four who died were found by firefighters on the fifth floor of the Neilson Road building, which was quickly engulfed in thick smoke. Authorities have not released their identities, but family members have previously identified three of them as married couple Hyacinth and Charles Roberts and Azeema Khan-Safraj, 86.

The housing complex caters to low-income seniors aged 59 and older.

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