Lisa Williams was heading home after a long day at work when the bus she was on abruptly braked a couple of blocks from where she lived.
“I saw flames and smoke and the bus driver announced there was going to be a detour because of the fire,” says Lisa. “I instinctively knew that it was my building.”
Around 10 a.m. on March 16, 2011, a fire broke out in the basement of a hardware store in Ottawa’s New Edinburgh neighbourhood. The fire spread to the adjacent businesses and the apartments above.
Lisa was one of at least a dozen people who couldn’t return to their apartments.
Over a warm cup of tea, Lisa recalls the events of the day. “The bus driver let us off the bus,” she says. “As I got closer to my building, I could see it was roped off with tape and there were firefighters and trucks in front.”
Lisa approached a firefighter and was told she couldn’t enter. “I think he could see I didn’t know what to do and put his hand on my shoulder, which calmed me down.”
The firefighter directed her toward The Salvation Army, which had been on site since earlier in the day, assisting the victims and supporting the first responders.
Retired firefighter volunteers were serving sandwiches and beef stew for dinner from The Salvation Army’s Ballard Truck, which is a mobile canteen.
“It’s well appreciated by the responding firefighters, especially on hot summer days and cold winter nights. It’s a godsend,” says Bob Antonietti, a volunteer with Salvation Army Victims Services.
Salvation Army Victims Services staff and volunteers were on site for 12 hours that day, providing emotional support and vouchers for clothing and furniture for those displaced by the fire. Former Salvation Army emergency disaster services director Theresa Antonietti says they helped 14 residents of the apartments.
“We were just thankful to be in a position to give people back a little bit of hope they lost in the fire,” Bob reflects.
Through the chaos, the noise and the clouds of smoke that were visible over half of the city, The Salvation Army greeted Lisa, who was still in shock.
Lisa is from Georgetown, Ont., a small community just outside of Brampton, Ont. She was living on her own and didn’t have any family in Ottawa. The Red Cross put her up in a hotel for a few nights, and The Salvation Army provided her with vouchers for clothing and furniture.
“I remember thinking, I won’t need this, it’s just for the night. Who knew?” she recalls. “They were helpful and reassuring and made me feel so much better.”
Firefighters battled the blaze for most of the day and into the night. A seniors’ residence in the area was also temporarily evacuated.
The toxic smoke caused by chemicals inside the hardware store billowed out onto the streets, prompting a warning to area residents to stay indoors and keep their windows, doors and chimney flues closed.
“Living in Limbo”
After two weeks, Lisa was able to return to her apartment to pick up a few belongings. Everything was covered in black soot and the apartment doors had been kicked in by firefighters during the blaze. There was no security in place when she returned, the main door was unlocked and many of the former residences had their belongings stolen.
Much of Lisa’s furniture was lost in the fire. “I didn’t have insurance, which wasn’t very smart, but I didn’t think I would ever need it,” she explains.
Not everything could be replaced. Lisa lost a treasure chest of memories filled with pictures of her travels and sentimental things.
The damage to her apartment was so extensive that all of the appliances had to be replaced and it would not be ready for five months. She decided to search for a new place.
“I didn’t want to keep living in limbo.”
The fire was not Lisa’s first encounter with The Salvation Army. She remembers her father volunteering with the Army’s Christmas Kettle Campaign and her family delivering food hampers in Georgetown.
“I never knew there were people in need in my area,” she recalls. “Now, when I donate to The Salvation Army through my workplace, it’s because I like what they do. They have such a wide range of services.
“It’s ironic,” Lisa reflects. “I never thought that I would need their help. I consider myself a very independent person but there are times when you need people, and for me that was certainly one of those times. I’m very grateful for the help they provided.”
by Caroline Franks