Neighbours describe devastating blaze

Andrew Robinson
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Investigators look through charred remains of buildings in downtown St. John’s Thursday

RNC Const. Jim French is elevated in a manlift Thursday to inspect the scene where three buildings were destroyed at the corner of Duckworth Street and Bates Hill in St. John’s in a fire Wednesday, while fire investigator Scott Tilley (left) and firefighter Capt. Craig Cox view the damage from the ground.

Ian Foster was sleeping at his home on Queen’s Road in St. John’s Wednesday morning when his girlfriend suddenly woke him up. She told him a building located directly behind them was on fire. Only smoke could be seen billowing out of a building on the corner of Bates Hill and Duckworth Street.

“That was enough to start us packing up a few items, just in case,” said Foster.

The fire escalated as the hours passed, destroying three buildings by the time firefighters turned off their hoses late Wednesday afternoon.

“If it had gotten another 10 feet closer to our place, it probably would have been the entire block,” said Foster.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and members of the St. John’s Regional Fire Department remained at the scene of the fire Thursday, and a portion of Duckworth Street remained closed to traffic for the second straight day.

Supt. Derek Chafe said firefighters were assisting the RNC with its investigation into the cause of the fire. Investigators were using a crane to examine the second floor of the building.

There were no injuries reported, but the fire destroyed several apartments and at least three small businesses.

In order to fight the fire from all angles, authorities eventually made use of Foster’s outdoor deck. By then, Foster and his girlfriend were forced to evacuate their home as flames became visible.

“We could see the fire start to come full-force just as we were evacuated,” said the St. John’s-based singer-songwriter.

Elling Lien first noticed a smoky smell in his home on Bates Hill while lying in bed that morning. He immediately “freaked-out,” thinking that something was burning inside his property.

Getting up to check the situation, he soon realized the smoke was, in fact, coming from the building across the road.

Lien does not know any of the current apartment tenants, but he did speak with someone who recently moved out of one of the apartments.

“He said that there were three families in there. … (The fire) was a big deal for them,” said Lien, editor of the alternative newspaper The Scope.

Bystanders said Wednesday that smoke was observed coming from the second- and third-floor apartments before firefighters arrived at the scene.

Lien said the fire did not initially look that serious. He eventually left his home as smoke from the fire made its way inside.

“We had one window slightly open upstairs, and it set off the fire alarm.”

Chafe said the fire was brought under control just after lunch Wednesday, although crews continued pouring water onto the blaze late into the afternoon.

“It’s a typical downtown fire,” he said. “It’s what we face in this downtown core regularly.”

The smell of smoke was not as noticeable inside Lien’s home Thursday, although he questioned whether he may have simply become used to it.

“I think when you really put your nose up to a couch or something, it would still smell a little bit.”

Thinking about his own situation living in an attached property in downtown St. John’s, Lien said it’s inevitable to worry about the possibility a fire could one day leave him homeless.

“Every new fire, it’s like, ‘Oh, is it this one? Is this the time that our house is going to burn down?’”

Foster was allowed to return to his home shortly before 6 p.m.

“Obviously, it was a long and stressful day,” he said. “It definitely felt touch and go for us for awhile personally, just in the sense that we could see how close the fire was. It’s quite a view now to see the wreckage from our back deck.”

The main level of the building on the corner was used as a storage area for food carts that sell hotdogs near George Street most nights. Carts saved before the fire spread were wheeled onto trucks Thursday. Staff with BELFOR Property Restoration and the City of St. John’s were also at the scene of the fire Thursday.

Meanwhile, a fundraiser has been organized to aid victims of the fire. It is scheduled to take place Sunday night at The Rockhouse on George Street.

Twitter: @TeleAndrew

Organizations: Foster.The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, Regional Fire Department

Geographic location: Bates Hill, Duckworth Street

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