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Allen Pinkerton (reader photo)

Days after a six-alarm blaze tore through Canada's largest social-housing building, authorities in Toronto are still in the dark: They won't even guess at what could have caused the fire, what sent it flaming out of control or when the structure's 1,200 residents - many of them the city's most vulnerable - will be able to go home.

In the meantime, the complex effort to house the newly homeless, clean up the mess, assess the damage and make repairs is pushing the city's resources to its limits.

"We're in a crisis," said Toronto Community Housing spokesman Barry Koen-Butt. "How do you accommodate 1,200 people? We just are not prepared for that."

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The fire started in an apartment in the 30-storey, 711-unit building. Residents said the man who lives in unit 2424 kept reams of old newspapers and legal documents at home.

A man identifying himself as the tenant, Stephen Vassilev, told reporters he was away at the time of the fire and that his apartment had been filled with legal books and papers relating to an ongoing property dispute.

But 48 hours after the fire began, little more is known of what caused the inferno that taxed the city's firefighters for much of Saturday night as they spent hours battling hot spots in the high-rise.

Inspection crews haven't even been able to set foot inside the unit where the fire originated: The building is so structurally damaged that the floors and ceilings have to be reinforced with concrete just to allow crews safe access - a task that was only beginning late Sunday afternoon.

Ontario Fire Marshal investigator Mike Stewart said the 1960s-era building was up to code when it came to fire safety. But the code it was adhering to was half a century old: Were it built in 2010, it would have been subject to a brand-new provincial law requiring all buildings with more than three storeys to be equipped with sprinklers on each floor - something the high-rise at 200 Wellesley did not have.

The building wasn't retrofitted to keep up with evolving safety regulations: It's not required under Ontario law, and although there are "retrofit allowances" available for smaller buildings, this towering structure wouldn't have qualified, Mr. Stewart said.

"There are certain things that would be great to have in the building," said community housing corporation spokeswoman Mitzie Hunter. "From our perspective, we have to look at the priorities, and right now we have done that in terms of what is required for us. … We manage 58,000 housing units across Toronto, and it is quite a large portfolio. There is a number of demands on the resources we have, so it is something we have to do in a priority sequence."

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The city is now housing 400 of the 1,200 people - many of them with physical or mental disabilities - displaced by the fire. There are about 250 at the Wellesley Community Centre next door and about 150 more at another location on McCaul Street. Late Sunday afternoon, the line of people at the Wellesley Community Centre stretched toward the charred and soaked apartment building they'd abandoned, as parents with crying infants, pet owners and people in wheelchairs waited while security guards checked tenant registration cards before allowing them into the emergency shelter.

The remaining 800 are arranging for their own accommodation with family and friends - by their own choice, Ms. Hunter said.

Charlie John spent the weekend sleeping in a parking lot, his head propped on a concrete divider. He figured that was a better alternative to the packed community shelter.

"There's too many people in there," he said, pointing a half-smoked cigarette at the Wellesley Community Centre, where residents draped in Red Cross blankets sat commiserating on cots. "They let dogs in there, which are yapping all night, plus everyone is starting to smell. Can't I get a place to sleep where I'm not surrounded by 100 bodies?"

Tenants staying at the Wellesley centre are bused to another location for showers. Many left medications and changes of clothes behind when they fled the building. The city has put a call out for donations - of money, clothing, diapers or other necessities.

"Like most people here, I haven't changed clothes in days, and everyone's starting to smell" said Cliff Martin, tenant representative at the building. "There are a lot of agencies working on this, but they don't seem to be communicating with one another."

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The city revised its disaster response protocol after an explosion and fire at 2 Secord Avenue that displaced 900 tenants. While different city agencies now work more closely to quickly wrangle food and shelter for evacuees, the scale of the Wellesley fire has stretched their capacity.

"There's no food but, pizza, pizza, pizza, for every meal," said Mulki Guled. "And even then they have run out. My wallet is inside the building and they won't let me get it. I either eat pizza or starve."

As a resident in the building for 21 years, tenant representative Cliff Martin said he has seen management gradually ease its supervision and maintenance of apartments. A similar fire in a hoarder's apartment unit forced residents out on Christmas Eve last year. Mr. Martin routinely hears complaints of broken elevators, prostitution and drug-dealing in the building, one of 19 high-rises built in the 1960s that now make up St. James Town, Canada's most densely populated neighbourhood.

"You can't have social housing this big," he said, looking up at the building's 30 charred storeys, "it just doesn't work."


The Wellesley fire and its fallout brought quick reaction from candidates in next month's mayoral race:

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Joe Pantalone: "We need more shelters. And emergency response situations like this, where people have few places to go, highlight that."

Sarah Thomson: "I have called for the restructuring of TCHC to focus on becoming a better landlord"

George Smitherman: "I have been impressed with the community response and depressed with governmental response. It has highlighted a number of deficiencies in the emergency preparedness protocols that I would address."

Rocco Rossi: "I want to commend Mayor Miller and the charitable organizations for a swift and effective response, but a shelter is not a home. We must do everything we can to get the victims back in their homes."

Adrienne Batra, spokeswoman for Rob Ford: "The issue right now is how the TCHC is handling it, what the managers are doing. Rob didn't want to interfere with what the mayor has already done. … Rob is certainly watching it. He has the names and numbers of managers, he will make phone calls if that's what he feels is necessary."

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