As heavy smoke from a Mount Pleasant apartment fire billowed across East Vancouver, residents scrambled to grab what they could and get out.
“Looked out into the hallway, smelled smoke so I didn’t really grab anything aside from my cat and I hopped out of the building,” said Philip Wiatrak, who has lived in the rental building on East 10th Avenue for just over a year.
He said false alarms happen in the 40-unit building several times per week so many residents didn’t evacuate immediately as the bells rang just after 8 Thursday evening.
“Last night I had to run and bang on everybody’s door to get out because the alarm goes off so often nobody comes out of their apartments,” said Mike McKay.
In the mad scramble to alert everyone to the danger, McKay didn’t have time to grab his own two cats and he spent Friday morning anxiously looking for them.
Vancouver Fire Rescue Service said it had to pluck several tenants from upper floor balconies because smoke and flames had engulfed their suites.
Many tenants of the aging building spent the night on cots in a nearby community centre before returning home Friday morning hoping to assess the damage.
The roof collapsed on a number of third floor apartments near where the fire started.
Even residents whose units were untouched by the flames say they’ve been told there will likely be significant smoke and water damage. and their apartments are likely uninhabitable.
Many don’t have insurance and say the city has agreed to help them with accommodation for 72 hours, after which they are on their own.
“It’s our problem. Basically that’s what the people said: ‘It’s your problem. You need to find a place to live,'” said Gerson Estrada, who only moved to Vancouver from Mexico eight months ago.
A number of tenants told CTV News the building was poorly maintained, and had few, if any, working fire extinguishers along with a sprinkler system that didn’t activate even as flames devoured their homes.
“I didn’t see any of them going off as I was leaving the building, no,” said Wiatrak.
On Friday afternoon, firefighters allowed some residents back into their suites to see what could be salvaged.
Most came back out with bags of soaking wet clothes.
For McKay, the pain of losing his home and all of his possessions was eased when firefighters managed to find Poof and Chaos, his two cats.
The felines seemed shaken but appeared to be in good health.
“Thank you, thank you!” McKay said to the firefighters. “You’re doing a great job.”
One firefighter was treated in hospital for smoke inhalation and exhaustion.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation – and that’s just one of many unanswered questions, including whether the building was up to code and if fire inspection officers were aware of any potential failings before the fire broke out.