When the alarm bells pierced Steven Helin’s and Kayla Robinson’s ears shortly after 9 p.m. during the evening of Oct. 5, they thought it was an apartment building drill. When they opened their front door to the acrid smell of burning plastic permeating their nostrils, they realized it was far more serious than a drill. Their pulses started to race as quickly as the worried thoughts clouded their minds.
Helin and Robinson were first-time renters. The young couple in their early 20’s were excited to start a grown-up life. They had worked hard to set up their first apartment with everything new, for their new beginning together.
Steven a bartender in Prince Rupert, and Kayla a housekeeper before losing her job at the start of COVID-19, took possession of their new second story flat on Oct. 3. They had never lived on their own before and had just three days prior moved out of their parent’s homes. The flame of youth made future prospects bright for them.
At 19 and 22 they are both still fresh to life’s experiences. Losing everything they owned and had worked towards in a building fire was not a thought that had crossed their optimistic minds.
“We moved toward the door when we heard the alarm. When we opened it all you could smell was burning plastic. We rushed to get our shoes and sweaters and tried to get to the emergency exit, but that (stairwell) was already full of really dark grey smoke,” Kayla said.
“I started to panic,” Kayla said. “We saw the caretakers wife in the hallway and she didn’t know what was going on. We told her about the emergency exit already not being useable. She rushed to get her husband.”
It all happened very quickly she said, with no time to think or consider options. They were one of the first people out of the building Kayla thinks.
“One of the tenants that we ran into in the hallway was panicking and confused. He wondering where to go because the fire exit was already filled with smoke. He went back into his apartment – that’s the one that the firefighters pulled out,” Kayla said.
Kayla said they helplessly stood across the wet road, behind the caution tape to watch the fire burn their home until 11:30 p.m. when they left and took a hotel room for the night. With fire crews fighting the battle until after dawn, the downtown fire decimated three city businesses and more than ten apartments.
Three days after the fire the couple returned to the scene to see the rubble of their life and the charred building pieces piled on the city street corner behind caution fencing. They could look but not touch.
“I think that’s our laundry basket,” Kayla said pointing to the broken meshed plastic laying discarded on the pavement in front of where their first three-day home stood earlier in the week. For the time being, she said she is returning to her mother’s house in Metlakatla and Steven is also going to his mom’s in the city where they can recover from the mentally exhausting flames of now ruined hope.
Hope. Hope was all Anand Mishra and his wife Deepika felt as they stood on the street with their 19- month-old baby watching the flames rip through their home and lives.
At the beginning, Anand said it was hope he felt that everyone got out safely. Then it was hope that the fire was small. Then after an hour of standing on the street it was hope that the fire would be extinguished, and they would be allowed back into their apartment that night. After three hours it was hope that they could find a bottle and diapers for little Aanaha, whom they call Dia.
The couple, new to Canada in 2019, had taken the apartment on the corner of Second and Sixth Ave to start a new life. Their new home worked well for them with Deepika working across the street at Tim Hortons and Anand working opposite shifts at Opa Sushi, so he could look after Dia while his wife worked.
“It was very hard to find a place to live. At that time we had no car, so we were looking downtown,” Anand said referring to the tight availability of housing in Prince Rupert for tenants.
Soon after moving in Deepika started to assist the property manager around the building and the couple became like the building managers. They got to know the tenants by taking maintenance calls, collecting rents, showing the units and renting to new tenants. They had never been instructed how to hold a fire drill, they said.
When the bells rang out on the evening of Oct. 5, Anand and Deepika were at their unit door saying goodbye to dinner guests they had hosted. After a few minutes, the bells wouldn’t stop.
Ananda told The Northern View that alarms would occasionally go off when people were cooking or when someone accidentally pulled the alarm, so he wasn’t scared at that point. He left Deepika in the apartment to reset the alarm panel down the hallway. When the piercing alarms wouldn’t reset or turn off he called the management company. They couldn’t get the alarms to reset either, he said.
As he walked back to his suite, Anand said he was startled to see smoke coming up to the second-floor apartments, through the back emergency exit.
“It was then I got really scared. The back alley is a bit rough. I called 911. Everyone started to come out of their units. I directed them to leave,” he said.
Deepika and Anand were in the hallway trying to get out themselves when tenants from two or three apartments tried to get back in.
“We told them to leave,” Deepika said.
The couple then rushed to grab a blanket for their daughter and quickly left the building themselves. They headed toward the emergency exit, but turned around as it was already filled with smoke.
“We left the building with just the clothes on our backs,” Anand said. “In the hurry for safety, we couldn’t even grab a bottle or diapers for our baby.”
He said it wasn’t until they stood shivering in the night watching the fire department rescue one of the tenants down a ladder that fear and worry started to overcome their feelings of hope for a quick end to the situation.
At 10:30 p.m. Anand said the fire department told tenants they would not be able to stay at the apartments.
“We started to get very scared when we realized that all of our documents were in there. Our passports, our work visas, our birth certificates, and jewellery were all in there, “Anand said. “We couldn’t even get our car keys, so we can’t use our car. It is still parked there.”
“Our first thought was for our baby. She had no diapers or bottles. She was crying and tired. We had no wallets because they were left in our home.”
While Victims Services provided some diapers, they could not find a bottle that late at night. The only place open was the local gas station and convenience store which did not stock the items. Anand said it was a very difficult time for them because they couldn’t get little Dia to drink until the next morning. She was crying and restless and wouldn’t settle easily. Without his wallet, he had to ask his employer for some assistance who brought him bottles the next morning.
“The thoughts come later after things have quietened down,” Anand said, “At the time we were standing outside waiting, hoping we could get back in. Then we stood there until 1 a.m. hoping we could get some belongings out.”
“There was nothing we could do. All we could do was stand there and watch. All I could do for Deepika was hold her while she cried standing there in the night.”
The young family has no support in Canada with their parents and relatives living overseas. The situation is especially hard on his wife Anand said as she has lost all of her heirloom items passed down to her for their wedding. She had brought them with her from India and treasured them being so far from her loved ones and her culture. Her religious icons gave her comfort and they are now gone. Gone are her diamond earrings. Gone is the gold ear cuff given to her by her grandmother. Gone are all the wedding photos, family photos, and photos of special occasions.
Deepika’s eyes filled with tears as she explained the significance of her beautiful ‘mangalsutra’ being lost in the rubble. The necklace was given to her as a bride gift from her groom and is a symbol of marriage and commitment. She said in her eastern culture the gold necklace is the equivalent of a western marriage wedding ring.
Anand said He said the devasting loss has set them back a year and since they have lost everything their families are telling them to go back to India, but that will not be happening, he said.
“I came here with nothing. If we go back, we will have even less. We have jobs here. We will take some time to rebuild,” Anand said with the hope of a better future showing on his face. Deepika smiled a little as sat beside him holding their baby. She nodded in agreement.
The young family said they are overwhelmed with gratitude for the community’s show of support by donations of clothing and household items so they can re-start their lives. They said they are grateful to have secured new housing through people they know where they can move to in mid-October. Their determination and positivity extinguish any flames of doubt they have about moving on. Hope will push them forward.
“Maybe something new will be more positive and something big will happen for us,” Anand said.
K-J Millar | Journalist
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