A fire that killed three at a seniors' public housing complex in east Toronto on Friday turned disastrous quickly as smoke filled the building's hallways, trapping elderly residents, many with senility and mobility problems, in their rooms.
Eight hours after the 3 p.m. fire at the building, Nazir Khan learned that his mother had been killed or severely burned, along with the care-worker who was with her at the time. The three dead and a fourth badly-burned patient hadn't been identified to relatives, but the two were among those four, he said.
At least 12 other injured people were taken to hospital and eventually identified, though for some, senility made it hard to confirm their names at first, Mr. Khan said.
Earlier that evening, while he waited to hear, Mr. Khan knew that his 86-year-old mother's health did not bode well for her chances of survival.
"She's had a knee replacement … she still can't walk," he said. She also had Alzheimer's. "These are things that I keep thinking might be negative for her" when trying to escape the building, he said.
Firefighters know that rescuing the elderly – at least those with mobility and hearing problems, dementia or even just physical frailty – is harder and slower than other rescues, said Toronto deputy fire chief Jim Jessop, one of around 70 firefighters who rushed to the building, which contains between 125- and 150-units.
Any rescue would have been difficult and harrowing for Mr. Khan's mother, who used a walker, he said. The elevators were out of commission with the fire alarms on, as in any apartment building.
But being rescued from her apartment would have also been complicated by her dementia, which caused her to become extremely stressed and confused during emergencies, leading to "temper tantrums," Mr. Khan said.
The care-worker for Mr. Khan's mother was hired by the family from a private agency, he said. She was in her early 50s.
Three seniors were brought down by ladders from the fifth and top floor, where the fire started, fire authorities said. Thirteen fire trucks arrived at the complex on Neilson Road in Scarborough. If it hadn't been for the massive response there's little doubt there would have been more deaths, said deputy chief Jessop.
The cause of the fire is still unclear.
"The smoke was so thick we're unsure if the fire started in a hallway or in one of the units," said Toronto Fire Services Captain David Eckerman.
Capt. Eckerman said tenants were advised to "shelter in place," whereby residents "stay in the room and close their door and seek fresh air from a balcony, anything you can do to shield yourself from the smoke."
But people, especially when confused, often run into common spaces, which is where they can face the most dangerous exposure to smoke, said deputy chief Jessop.
Dan Hunter, deputy commander of Toronto Paramedic Services, said most of those injured Friday were suffering from smoke inhalation.
The community housing complex caters to low-income seniors 59 and older. Lisa Murray, a spokesperson for the Toronto Community Housing, said that among all TCH seniors, about 70 per cent live alone.
The building was in compliance with all aspects of the fire code, according to its last inspection in January, said Ms. Murray.
The building did not have sprinklers in each room, only in the common spaces and hallways, she said. They hadn't been required in each room when the building was constructed 25 years ago.
At the start of 2014, Ontario made changes to fire and building codes that would make it mandatory for licensed retirement homes to install sprinklers within a five-year period. Publicly funded nursing homes have until 2025. As an apartment building, the public housing complex was not subject to the changes.
It's unclear whether sprinklers were operating at the time of the fire, but fire authorities said there was no early indication of fire-code violations.
"There was never any mention that sprinklers were operating," Capt. Eckerman said. "I don't know according to the code whether they're required, so that will be part of the investigation."
Another man whose mother lived in the building said there were often fire alarms as forgetful residents had small problems in the kitchen. With stairs at either end of the building, when the elevators were not working it was often slow and difficult for residents in the middle of the building to make their way out, said Nanthu Kamal.
With a report from Julien Gignac