Vigil held to mark first anniversary of the St. James Town fire
Codi Wilson and Bryann Aguilar, CP24.com
Published Wednesday, August 21, 2019 8:08AM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, August 21, 2019 10:06PM EDT
Residents of a St. James Town highrise gathered on Wednesday night to mark the one-year anniversary of the six-alarm fire that changed their lives.
The vigil was held in a tennis court behind the 650 Parliament Street building, where residents shared their stories. It also included poem reading and prayer for the residents.
On Aug. 21, 2018, a massive fire in the electrical room of 650 Parliament Street resulted in substantial damage to the residential building’s electrical system.
While no injuries were reported, approximately 1,500 tenants were forced to scramble to find alternate accommodations while crews work to repair the issues.
Initially, tenants were told they would be able to return to their units in early 2019 but that date has been postponed multiple times.
Earlier this month, the management of the building said residents can expect to move back in November.
However, Ward 13 Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who attended the vigil, said she does not believe the management after previous postponements.
"I want to take all of that with a grain of salt," said Wong-Tam.
Despite the hardships the residents continue to endure, Wong-Tam said they have been very resilient.
"It's been very difficult," she said. "They have live through harrowing times."
Mayor John Tory, who was also at the vigil, said the city has learned a lot from the incident.
"In terms of the inspections, in terms of the new rules that say people have to have a plan so that if something bad happens in a building, there is a plan," said Tory.
He said city staff will work hard to make sure that the building management will meet the November date.
Tory also assured residents that measures are put in place in order to avoid such incident.
"We're going to make sure you get back home," said Tory, who added that the residents will always have a special place in his heart.
A resident, who moved four times since the fire, said he didn't think it would take a long time to fix the damage.
"It's been very disruptive, very unsettling. I just want to go back to my home of 27 years," he said.
The costs associated with the fire are steep, with reconstruction costs estimated to be $50 to $60 million. Officials say another $13 million has been spent to assist displaced tenants.
Deputy Fire Chief Jim Jessop called the fire “one of the biggest” the city has seen in years.
“It was one of the most labour-intensive fires our staff have ever seen,” Jessop told CP24 on Wednesday.
“Every electrical component in that building has to have been replaced. You are talking about literally getting into walls and cavities and trying to find wires and replacing stuff.”
The fire has prompted city officials to undertake audits of other highrises in St. James Town and across the city to ensure building and life-safety systems are up to code.
Residents left with 'more questions than answers'
Officials now say that about 65 per cent of the work that needs to be done at 650 Parliament St. has been finished and tenants may be able to return to their units in November.
Wong-Tam says the residents have lived with “instability,” “uncertainty,” and “frustration” for too long.
“They have moved between temporary housing, seen promised move-in dates get pushed further and further back and have been often left with more questions than answers about how they remain in this situation more than a year later,” Wong-Tam said in a written statement.
“Despite this, 650 Parliament residents have also shown themselves to be incredibly resilient, patient and thoughtful, using this tragedy to build new relationships both within their building and in the wider St. James Town Community.”
Speaking to CP24 on Wednesday afternoon, Wong-Tam said some impacted by the fire feel as though they have "lost everything."
"The stories that I have heard now… is that some of them have moved five, six, seven times," she said, adding that it is difficult to focus on things like employment and education without stable housing.
"For a lot of residents, they have told me that they have gone into significant debt."