A busy midtown intersection was shut down Tuesday as a raging six-alarm blaze tore through the city's storied Badminton and Racquet Club of Toronto and damaged surrounding buildings.
All four corners of Yonge and St. Clair were evacuated as more than 160 firefighters arrived on scene to extinguish the fire, in which only two individuals – both firefighters – suffered minor injuries.
Crews faced serious hurdles in containing the fire because of how the building at 25 St. Clair Ave. West was situated.
The first emergency call came in at 9:20 a.m. from within the 93-year-old club, as members noticed smoke and pulled the alarm.
Because it was difficult to access the building from all sides, in the initial hours, firefighters climbed on the roof and tried to tame the fire from above, Toronto Fire Captain David Eckerman said. Eventually, violent flames licked their way through the south end of the roof, destablizing it. Those who were stationed on top scrambled to safety just moments before that section of the roof buckled.
At 11:20 a.m., the piercing horn of one of the fire trucks at the scene sounded three times – firefighter code for "urgent, urgent, urgent" – a signal to evacuate before the east wall collapsed.
Later, a group of firefighters stood on the balconies of the adjacent condo building and aimed their hoses at the flames. But they still couldn't put it out.
At its peak, Toronto Fire had 54 trucks on the scene. By mid-afternoon, the steady gush of water that was being sprayed on the fire had accumulated to a depth of one foot.
In the late afternoon, as thick clouds of charcoal-coloured smoke hung so thickly in the air that crews began distributing particle masks, Toronto Fire hatched a new plan.
Just ahead of evening rush hour, heavy machinery were dispatched to dismantle the building piece by piece in order to give firefighters greater access to where the "deep-seated burning" was happening, Capt. Eckerman said.
"We're not declaring the building a complete loss as yet," he said. "This is our hope that we'll be able to access some of those areas by peeling back the fascia."
The fire created havoc in the neighbourhood, as subway trains bypassed St. Clair station and buses and streetcars were diverted. An emergency shelter was set up in the lobby of 55 St. Clair Ave. West for area residents who were displaced.
Teams who first responded to the call believe the fire may have started in the racquet club's mechanical room. In 2009, an electrical fault in the men's sauna started a fire that destroyed the men's locker room, according to the club's website. Reconstruction was completed a year later.
The building was constructed as a streetcar barn in the late 1800s by the Toronto & York Radial Railway, which was taken over by the TTC in 1921. It was purchased in 1924 by Lieutenant-Colonel George Gooderham Blackstock – a prominent Toronto executive – and converted into a private badminton club that expanded over the decades.
The Badminton and Racquet Club (commonly referred to as "The B&R") has attracted members who "were among the elite of Toronto business and social life," according to the club's website. Its current membership is more than 2,500. The facility included badminton, tennis, squash and platform tennis courts as well as a fitness centre and several lounges. The club's owners had recently renovated some of the club's eating areas and upstairs fitness studios.