Crews battling 'complicated' six-alarm blaze at York Memorial C.I.
Joshua Freeman, CP24.com
Published Tuesday, May 7, 2019 6:35AM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, May 7, 2019 10:45PM EDT
Crews are continuing efforts to stamp out a raging six-alarm fire that tore through a school in the city’s west end.
“Our principal focus now in collaboration with the police is making sure that we’re implementing the necessary evacuations out of an abundance of caution to keep people safe,” Toronto Fire Chief Matthew Pegg said.
Homes on the south side of Eglinton Avenue were evacuated between Trethewey Drive and Bicknell Avenue due to heavy smoke from the fire but residents have since be told it is safe to return.
Several schools in the area – including George Harvey CI, Silverthorn CS, Charles E Webster PS and Keelsedale JPS – were also evacuated. Classes at George Harvey CI were cancelled for the day and will also be cancelled tomorrow, according to the TDSB. Students at Silverthorn CS, Charles E Webster PS and Keelsedale JPS were relocated to Oakwood CI for the day. The TDSB says that it will conduct air quality tests at those schools overnight and make a determination in the morning on whether students will be able to return.
Speaking with reporters at the scene on Tuesday morning, Mayor John Tory said the city was making arrangements to provide any displaced residents with an alternate place to stay in the event that they need one.
“If there are still people at home in the areas where the fire department has been going door to door to ask them to leave their homes I would hope that they would heed that advice,” he said. “It is advice only but it is advice that is being offered quite strongly by the authorities because it is their view that the smoke and the direction which the smoke is going mostly to the south poses a potential hazard for people.”
Firefighters battling blaze defensively
At around 3 p.m. Tuesday, Tory said that about 150 firefighters were currently on scene.
Those firefighters were all battling the blaze form a defensive position after pulling back due to unsafe conditions.
“There’s no one operating inside the building,” Pegg said. “Very very heavy fire, very heavy smoke, very complicated and challenging operation for us.”
Aerial trucks continued to douse heavy volumes of water on the roof to try and quash the flames as volumes of thick smoke continued to pour from the building Tuesday morning.
Crews were first called to York Memorial Collegiate Institute in the Eglinton Avenue and Trethewey Drive area on Monday at around 2 p.m.
Students and staff got out of the building safely and Toronto Fire said the three-alarm fire was contained by around 4 p.m.
However, crews keeping an eye on the scene overnight detected a flare-up with a thermal imaging camera.
“Once that was detected around 3:24 a.m. this morning, a second alarm was immediately called,” Toronto Fire Capt. David Eckerman told CP24 early Tuesday.
Pegg called the blaze “significant” and “complicated” and said it appears that the fire that started overnight is distinct from the one that started yesterday.
“The early indications are that this is a separate fire from yesterday’s fire,” Pegg said.
By around 5:30 a.m., heavy smoke and flames could be seen shooting from the building and the call was eventually escalated to a five-alarm situation. At around 10 a.m., the fire was escalated to a six-alarm response.
Eckerman said additional crews arrived at the school Tuesday to find a “stubborn hidden fire” in the stage and auditorium area
“The fire has spread in the walls from the first and second floor adjacent to the stage area as well as burning in under the stage as well. It has since continued up into the roof area,” Eckerman said.
He said firefighters cut away part of the stage to try and access the fire and ran a hose down to the basement. However the first floor of the building partially collapsed and bricks started falling from the burning structure, forcing crews to pull out of the building.
Later in the morning, crews moved onto the roof to try and battle the blaze from on top of the building, but they eventually had to retreat as well because of unsafe conditions.
Pegg said it’s impossible to say now how long it will take to stamp out the fire.
“We’re doing everything that can be done and we’ll obviously bring it under control as quickly as we can, but I wouldn’t even hazard a guess at this point,” Pegg said.
One person was treated at the scene for smoke inhalation Monday, but no serious injuries have been reported in connection with the fire Monday or Tuesday.
The cause of the fire is not yet clear. Toronto police have said that the initial fire on Monday was being investigated as suspicious, but it is not yet clear if that applies to the blaze that sprung up Tuesday.
“We’re working very closely with Toronto Fire. Obviously we won’t be able to determine what’s gone on here until the fire is put out,” Toronto police Superintendent Ron Taverner told CP24. “The Ontario Fire Marshall is involved as well, so it’s an ongoing process.”
Taverner said police are concerned the fire may be suspicious, but acknowledged that it is too soon to say.
“We’re concerned that it may be suspicious,” he said. “It’s too early to really focus in on causes, etc. right now.”
School was set to mark 90th anniversary
Bird said the TDSB will have to wait until firefighters have completed their work before they can go in and assess how much of the building is salvageable.
Speaking with CP24 at the scene, York Memorial C.I. Principal Donna Drummond said it was “a very sad day for all.”
Speaking through tears, an emotional Drummond said the fire struck just as the school was getting ready to mark its 90th anniversary.
“We’re losing a phenomenal history,” Drummond said. “The legacy of the school – you cannot replace it.”
She said the school auditorium was “gorgeous” and contained unique stained glass windows, pillars and other architectural features.
She said the building was special because it was designed to pay tribute to Canada’s fallen soldiers after World War One.
“It’s a school named over those who sacrificed their lives to us to give us our freedoms and the auditorium was a reflection of that great sacrifice and the things that we’ve done,” Drummond said. “So to see the devastation…”
She said she will be working with other TDSB staff to figure out how the rest of the school year will proceed.
Coun. Frances Nunziata, who wards includes the area where the school is located, told reporters that while the damage is likely to be significant she remains hopeful that the structure can be rebuilt.
“Hopefully we can keep the façade of the building and rebuild inside,” she said. “You can never build a school like the way we have now at York Memorial but hopefully we can salvage whatever is left and rebuild around and inside the school.”
Eglinton Avenue is closed in both directions from Keele Street to Black Creek Drive as crews battle the fire.