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Allen Pinkerton (reader photo)

An elderly man is in critical condition and more than a thousand people have been forced from their homes following a six-alarm fire near the top of a downtown high-rise apartment building Friday evening.

By midnight, the fire at 200 Wellesley St. East was still burning and fire crews became concerned about the structural integrity of parts of the building, prompting them to order a mass evacuation.

Tenants poured into the nearby Wellesley Community Centre, where Toronto Community Housing staff handed out food. They were joined by the Red Cross, Councillor Pam McConnell and mayoral candidate George Smitherman. The building's residents will have to spend at least one night sleeping on the centre's floor.

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Meanwhile, at least 12 people were taken to hospital, including two firefighters and two children. Of the injured, two were serious and one was life-threatening.

The fire broke out around 5 p.m. in a 24th-floor apartment. Flames poured out of the suite, while smoke and soot blackened other nearby balconies. Flaming debris from the 24th floor dropped to balconies on other floors, setting them alight and causing a second fire several storeys below. Smoke could be seen escaping out of vents at the top of the building.

About 100 firefighters arrived to fight the flames. While some made their way to the roof of the building, others pushed through smoke-filled stairwells, trying to find the source of the fire. One firefighter was taken out of the building after his oxygen tank ran out; another was briefly lost in the smoke. Ten firefighters were treated on the scene for heat exhaustion.

By 7 p.m., crews had reached the flames and began dousing them with water.

However, the fire soon spread to at least two other units, one of the 24th floor and one on the floor below. They said other units were affected by the sheer heat of the blaze.

While it wasn't clear what exactly sparked the blaze, Fire Chief William Stewart said a large amount of debris in the unit where it started appeared to be fuelling it.

"There was a high level of combustible material in the unit," he said. "This will be a long-duration opreation."

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Stephen Vassilev told reporters at the scene that his was the unit that caught fire and that it was full of legal books and papers. Mr. Vassilev, who wasn't home at the time of the fire, said he would likely sleep in his car overnight and that his cat was still unaccounted for.

At first, only residents on the affected floord were evacuated, while others who weren't affected by the smoke or flames were encouraged to remain in their suites with towels or blankets under the doors.

But as the fire wore on, fire crews changed tack.

Editor's Note: A previous online version of this article misidentified Fire Chief William Stewart. This version has been corrected.





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