Firefighters rescued two residents of a downtown apartment building during an early morning blaze Saturday.
The fire at 27 Towers St., appears suspicious, but Ontario Fire Marshal investigator Timothy Irish can’t confirm the blaze was deliberately set.
He took four samples from the scene on Sunday for examination at Centre of Forensic Sciences.
“At this time I’m going to have to reserve judgment on this fire scene investigation,” Irish told The Sault Star. “I’m not in a position where I can make a call.”
Sault Ste. Marie Police Service is also investigating.
A man, 34, and female, 66, were rescued from the windows of their second-floor units. They were “yelling for help” with their “heads out the windows,” said platoon chief Richard Pihlaja of Sault Ste. Marie Fire Services. Neither was hurt.
Their units were on the building’s west side. The fire, with an area of origin centring on a homemade wooden recycling cabinet, began underneath a balcony and set of stairs leading to the second floor, said Irish.
The blaze caused extensive damage to the building’s western exterior wall and a unit on the second floor.
“This was a serious fire,” said Pihlaja. “We’re lucky no lives were lost.”
The building’s alarm system worked.
Firefighters needed 20 to 30 minutes to knock down the blaze at the approximately 70-year-old building.
One firefighter was injured as he helped bring a hose line to the building. He was taken to Sault Area Hospital with non-life-threatening injuries and released, said Pihlaja. OFM investigates fires for several reasons including heavy property damage, death or explosions. English is probing the blaze because of its suspicious origins and the injury to the firefighter.
Seven residents were displaced. Canadian Red Cross found short-term housing for three tenants. The other four stayed with family and friends.
Peter Florio was running an event at Rockstar Republic at Algonquin Hotel on Queen Street East early Saturday. He smelled something burning and checked the DJ equipment and patio area. Florio started running towards the apartment building after seeing smoke and sparks.
He heard a loud bang when he arrived. In an email, Florio said he knocked on each door on the ground floor and then kicked them in.
“One older gentleman closed the door on me,” said Florio. “I kicked it open again. I grabbed him, looked him in his face and said, ‘Get out right now.’ He complained about his shoes so I gave him mine.”
Phi Tomchak has lived in the building for 16 years. He was sleeping when someone knocked on his ground-floor bachelor apartment door yelling, “Fire. Fire.”
The retired St. Marys Paper worker dressed, stepped outside and saw sparks from the west side of the building. Tomchak is grateful no tenants were injured.
“Buildings you can replace,” he said, sitting in the driver’s seat of his Ford F150 truck outside his apartment. Tomchak stayed with his sister, who also lives in the neighbourhood, before returning to the building before 6 a.m. He wanted to ensure no one tried to enter units and steal property belonging to him or his neighbours.
“I just want to make sure everything’s secure here,” said Tomchak. “I don’t feel comfortable leaving the place.”
He estimated a crowd of 30 to 40 people watched the fire from the south side of Towers Street.
Bill Leonard had trouble sleeping Friday night. The retired Sault Ste. Marie Transit and Algoma Steel driver heard voices outside his main-floor apartment just west of 27 Towers St when he went to bed at 11:30 p.m. and again when he woke up several times before the fire started. Leonard looked out different windows, but saw no one.
He opened his front door and heard what he thinks was propane being released from a cylinder.
“The gas you could hear it coming out,” said Leonard. “Next thing I knew there was a big explosion. All I heard was somebody say ‘run’ … The whole wall (of 27 Towers St.) just lit up right from the ground right past the roof. I mean it was lit up. I bet you the flames were about 40 feet above the roof.”
A double-car garage between his apartment and the neighbouring property prevented him from seeing anyone. He thought the blast “was going to knock me on my butt.”
“It sure scared the hell out of my poor wife,” said Leonard. “The heat was so intense I could feel it at the door (of my apartment).”
He finally went back to bed at 4 a.m., but was up again about three hours later.
“It’s been a long night,” said Leonard. “It was quite a sight. I’m still shaking inside.”
Four propane cylinders used for a barbecue were near where the fire started, but they did not explode, said Irish. The loud bang Leonard heard could have been high pressure venting from a tank. He doubted propane was deliberately released from a cylinder.
“That doesn’t make sense to me,” said Irish. “It doesn’t fit.”
A loud bang can be heard on a five-minute video taken at the scene by Mike Babcock and posted on Facebook. A man repeatedly yells, “Get out.” A woman notices the male tenant looking out his second-floor window. Firefighters put up a ladder for him to escape