Two months later, has 200 Wellesley absorbed the shocks of the fire?
By Caitlin Orr — Rye Here, Rye Now
Normally, someone walking through St. James Town encounters a bouquet of scents from diverse residents’ cooking. Two months ago, the acrid smell of smoke overwhelmed all else within blocks of the neighbourhood, in every direction. A six-alarm blaze spread to at least two apartments in 200 Wellesley on September 24, a high-rise managed by Toronto Community Housing.
Authorities have still not determined the cause of the fire, but it was very difficult to put out because of a lot of “combustible debris” in the original apartment, according to audio of Fire Chief William Stewart posted online by Justin Kozuch. Crews spent about eight hours and five million gallons of water battling the 24th-floor blaze, as high winds fed the flames. “[Firefighters] that have been on the job three years [were] saying they’ve never seen a fire as hot,” Stewart said. No one was seriously injured, but 14 people were taken to hospital, including three firefighters, mostly for smoke inhalation treatment.
“It was pretty clear to me that there was a huge hoarding issue in that apartment,” said Pam McConnell, Ward 28 Councillor, who said she was represented at the community centre every day for the first two weeks after the fire, either in person or by a staff member. While 200 Wellesley is a Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) building, its management was contracted out to Greenwin Property management, a relic of its previous ownership by the Metro Toronto Housing Authority before 2000.
Residents said Greenwin conducts yearly inspections, the last one as recently as three months ago. “That guy’s apartment didn’t clutter overnight,” said one resident. “[The fire] was preventable had the management done the inspection properly.” TCHC spokesperson Mitzie Hunter confirmed that the inspections take place, but said they happen in October, which means that this year’s rounds came too late to prevent the fire. She said they have now been carried out, smoke detectors have been replaced, and a new fire alarm system was installed Dec. 2. When asked about accusations that the building was not up to fire code and lacked sprinklers, she said the company has complied with all fire regulations and that sprinklers in the hallways and boiler rooms were functioning for the duration of the fire.
In what seemed like a response to Greenwin’s neglect, TCHC took over management of the building on October 2. That was a “huge message to tenants that TCHC is not going to put up with that kind of dismissal of people and their safety,” Councillor McConnell said. “In order for TCHC to move so quickly, they must have felt the contract had not been fulfilled and tenants were not being protected,” she explained.
When the fire started, residents were advised to stay in their apartments and block doors with wet towels, but as the well-fueled fire raged on, Fire Chief Stewart said the structure of the building was threatened, leading to a full evacuation. The population of the building’s 712 units is about 1,200 on paper, but “there is a hidden homelessness problem” which brought the total of displaced people up to about 1,700, according to Himy Syed, a mayoral candidate in the recently-passed municipal election who has volunteered in relief efforts and organized a fundraiser for the displaced residents.
Tenants of 309 apartments in the South tower have been allowed to return, as air quality continues to pass tests and fans and humidifiers have been left running. Removal of excessive moisture and corresponding repairs, mainly for water and smoke damage, need to be completed before residents in the North tower will be able to return to their units. In mid-October, Hunter said that it will take about three to six weeks before tenants can return to these apartments. According to the City website, those who live on the 23 and 25 floors in the North tower and both sides of the 24th floor will need to be provided with even longer-term accommodations.
Over the past week, TCHC has started holding meetings with North tower residents to share details about compensation and initiate recovery of some belongings, which have been stored temporarily in the building’s basement. Tenants who have still not been able to go home or access belongings have been waived their rent payments, including for December, and received a clothing allowance. Residents who stayed with friends or family between Oct. 15 and Nov. 15 received $10 daily payments, and this has now been extended until Dec. 16. All tenants have received cheques, about $150 for one-bedroom apartments and $300 for two-bedroom apartments, divided up from the approximately $150,000 of donations received by the City. They are also still able to get tokens or food vouchers from the Wellesley Community Centre.
Despite the compensation, the wait to return home is agonizing. “We’re all so devastated by this,” said Ron Allen, who has lived on the 18th floor for eight years. “Basically I’m homeless.” The first few nights after the fire, tenants were bussed to temporary accommodations at the U of T Exam Centre, or slept on cots at the Wellesley Community Centre, which was soon designated as a shelter by the City.
On the fourth night after the fire, by midnight, the City managed to provide hotel, motel or other furnished temporary accommodations to those residents who wanted them, while a large number – about 200, according to City spokesperson Rob Andrusevich – had decided to stay with family or friends. While some were housed in rooms as ritzy as the Delta Chelsea’s, “the bottom line is, you can be comfortable, but it’s not home,” said Earle Zwicker, a blind resident who relies on his guide dog to get around.
Zwicker, who lives on the 14th floor, was called on October 4 and told he could move back in, only to be asked to leave the next day when air quality tests were below par. “I’m just really frustrated because they’re not consistent with their information,” he said. “Apparently there are many units where people have to leave again,” he tweeted on October 5. As for his guide dog, a 7-year-old yellow lab named Peterson, “it’s hard for him because it’s not in our regular routine.” He said that while his belongings seemed intact, the apartment floor was badly water damaged. He is still staying with friends, and was told at the October 16 meeting that he won’t be able to go home for another five to six weeks.
Several residents were less than happy with how the City and the other volunteer agencies who stepped in handled the emergency response. Everett Collrian, a resident of 200 Wellesley and vice-chair of the St. James Town Safety Committee, shared concerns about how quickly sanitation, access to showers and medication, and accommodations appropriate for mentally or physically ill residents were provided. “These folks have not really given everything as quickly as it was needed,” he said. But TCHC spokesperson Mitzie Hunter defended the crisis response team. “The fire safety response worked,” she said.
According to Himy Syed, on the night of the fire there was chaos and confusion. “We dropped the ball.” But it is worth noting that the City was able to provide temporary housing and return at least some residents faster than in the July 2008 fire at Secord Ave., near Danforth Ave. and Main St. That time, it took a week just to find temporary accommodations for 900 residents, and six weeks to repair the building so tenants could move back in.
“Could you imagine me without my Star?”
Ron Allen left his apartment at 11:30 pm the Friday of the fire to walk his dog. When he returned, he found himself stranded after the building was evacuated, with no warning. Allen was relatively lucky to have left the building with his dog, as many residents’ pets remained trapped in apartments for a few more days, being provided with food and water by Animal Services.
“Everybody’s stressed out about the pets,” Allen said the week after the fire. “They’re part of the family.” A friend from a neighbouring building, Pat O’Brien, sympathized: “Can you imagine me without my Star?” Allen said having his dog was the most important factor in dealing with the fire: “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to get back in there if my pets were still inside.”
An independent pet food bank called Project Maddie, founded by Kimberly Ford of Oakville, provided 900 pounds of dog and cat food for the displaced pets; Ford estimated that it helped about 300 pets from the fire, according to a report by the Toronto Star. Ford’s hope was to be able to provide help to people at risk of losing their pets in short-term financial instability, but the project is now on hold due to lack of donations.
City spokesperson Rob Andrusevich said that all residents had an opportunity to register their pets at the community centre so that Animal Services staff knew where to retrieve them. Now, more than 250 pets have been reunited with their owners, according to Andrusevich. Only fish tanks remain in the North tower – “fish have been fed and treated and are doing well” – but 20 pets remain in shelters while the City looks for long-term fostering options, according to its website.
Not all pets made it, though; about a dozen died from smoke inhalation, Andrusevich said. Varlo Dwyer, a 75-year-old retired nurse who’s lived on the 30th floor for more than 30 years, lost five of her six cats for that reason. “I lost my voice from screaming that night when I heard it,” she said. “They are unique, they give you the love you give them, and that’s why it hurts.” Her remaining cat, 11-year-old Cheddar, is in the care of Animal Services until she can return home.
A brief interview with Varlo can be viewed here:
“Twitter is the community”
Social media created a virtual network of volunteers that reached farther and clearer than relief efforts on the ground, from Twitter to Facebook to websites like www.wellesleyfire.ca and a page on the wiki www.torontowiki.ca. For Zwicker, it wasn’t easy, comfortable, or convenient getting around the temporary shelter at the chaotic community centre. He relied on Twitter updates on his iPhone to stay in the loop. “I read Twitter all the time, and it’s a great resource for me after regular media coverage dies down,” he said. “Twitter is the community.”
Mayoral candidate Himy Syed and volunteers like Hollie Pollard made use of the hashtag #wellesleyfire on Twitter to coordinate tweets asking for resources and donations, and even to organize a fundraiser telling residents’ stories the following week. Sisters Melissa and Alicia of Pixelpowrrr, a project that aims to provide web support to non-profits, started the website www.wellesleyfire.ca to help consolidate organizations’ information into one hub.
“The opportunities and benefits of social media were seen clearly at the 200 Wellesley blaze,” said Howard Bortenstein, founder of a consulting firm that specializes in disaster planning and a Ward 28 councillor candidate in the recently-passed election. “Generally social media tools are essential now in dramatically reducing the response time in disasters.”
Updates for residents can be found at the City of Toronto website at http://www.toronto.ca/200wellesley.htm#newsreleases or by calling the Tenant Hotline at 416-981-5520. The donation centre is open at 257 Jarvis St., north of Dundas St., from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, but only to residents who have not been able to return home or access their belongings since the fire. Donations are also being accepted at the City of Toronto website, or at any RBC branch.