125 people displaced by fire at the highrise in Hay River

431
A fire broke out in an apartment on the 11th floor of Hay River's Mackenzie Place - commonly referred to as the highrise - on the afternoon of March 15. Paul Bickford/NNSL photo
A fire broke out in an apartment on the 11th floor of Hay River’s Mackenzie Place – commonly referred to as the highrise – on the afternoon of March 15.
Paul Bickford/NNSL photo

The 125 residents of the highrise that caught fire in Hay River on Friday will have to wait until March 20, and possibly longer, before they can return to their homes.

At a March 16 information meeting for evacuees, assistant fire Marshal Travis Wright told residents that they could not be allowed back into their apartments.

“At this time, the situation is the building is going to remain closed to the public and occupants until we can assess the potential dangers to the public and occupants,” he said. “We are currently working on a plan to assess the extent of damage and dangers present in the building.”

The fire began in an apartment on the 11th floor Hay River’s Mackenzie Place on the afternoon of March 15. No one was injured in the incident.

Wright could not give an exact time of when the residents could return.

“I cannot report an accurate timeline for this process at this time,” he said. “What I can report is that it will not be before Wednesday and it could be beyond this point. I understand people want to access their possessions, but we cannot put people at risk or in danger.”

That message was not welcomed by many, including one man who angrily demanded that he be allowed back into the building to get his wallet so he could leave town.

Wright stressed that public safety will be the number one priority.

The Fire Marshal’s Office had the backing of the RCMP.

“The building has been cleared and it is secured,” said Sgt. Brandon Humbke of the Hay River RCMP Detachment. “There are police officers holding the building right now. Nobody is allowed inside the building except who needs to be in there for the investigation and inspection purposes.”

Humbke said he understands people’s frustrations.

Displaced residents asked about a number of concerns from not having driver’s licences, to going without medication or school textbooks.

Wright had no information on a possible cause of the fire as of March 16.

“As far as the fire investigation goes, we’re still in our preliminary investigation and have nothing to report at this time,” he said.

At about 2:30 p.m. on March 15, smoke could be seen billowing from the north side of Mackenzie Place, and eventually flames started to leap out the windows of the 11th-floor apartment, as broken glass fell to the ground.

Members of the RCMP and the Hay River Fire Department could be seen leading people out of the building, including some in wheelchairs.

As the fire raged above, dozens of people gathered to watch, including many who had been forced out of the structure.

Gordon Cochrane, who lives on the 10th floor, was in his apartment with his two children at the time.

“The alarm went off three times,” he said. “By then we got the kids ready and left the building.”

Gabrielle Landrie, who also lives in the building, said she believes the evacuation was very organized thanks to the building manager and others.

“There were people knocking on all the doors,” Landrie said.

The residents were told to gather at the Community Hall in the Rec Centre for an accounting of everyone.

That night some found their own accommodations, while others stayed on the Hay River Reserve at the Dene Wellness and Development Centre, formerly the Nats’ejee K’eh Treatment Centre.

At the March 16 meeting of evacuees, Hay River Mayor Kandis Jameson expressed thanks that everyone was safe after the fire, and she also thanked everyone for coming together to help the evacuees.

The response to the crisis has been officially taken over by the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority.

“We’ll be pulling in the entire community and our community partners to assist us in supporting all of you,” Health Authority CEO Erin Griffiths told the evacuees.

Numerous organizations are involved the response, including GNWT departments and agencies, the Town of Hay River, K’atlodeeche First Nation, the Soup Kitchen, Soaring Eagle Friendship Centre, Georgina’s Place Thrift Store and many others.

Community residents have also been making donations to help the evacuees.

Ramona Cotchilly, who lives on the fourth floor of the highrise with her child and partner, expressed appreciation for the help.

“I’m just thankful that Hay River pulls through the way they do,” she said. “I love that.”

On the evening of the fire, Cotchilly was accommodated at the Dene Wellness and Development Centre.

“We had everything,” she said of the accommodations. “It was really good.”

Still, Cotchilly hopes to return home soon, and is not nervous about returning to a building where there has been a fire.

“I’m scared we’d not be able to go back into the building,” she said. “There’s water damage, they said. Maybe all our stuff might be ruined.”

Ryan Barbeau, who lives on the 10th floor, also wants to get back into his apartment.

“I just want to get up there and see what the extent of the damage is,” he said. “See if we have anything that’s salvageable.”

Olly Das, an administrator with building owner Satdeo Inc., was in Mackenzie Place at the time of the fire.

“I went to every floor from the 11th upward,” she said.

Das noted that the highrise itself is a victim of the fire.

And she expressed gratitude that no one was injured, saying, “We praise and thank God for sparing lives of even pets.”

There are about 130 apartments in the building, and 83 of them are rented.

Mackenzie Place was built in the 1970s.