Businesses in the area of Thursday night's blaze at Citadel Mews West, a seniors residence in northeast St. Albert, became a haven for shaken evacuees who poured into the street holding few possessions as the fire ravaged their homes.
Ashley Niebach, owner of Herc’s Nutrition, a sport supplement store, was still working when she spotted flames at the continuing-care facility across the street around 7:45 p.m. Thursday evening.
“I thought it was a barbecue at first. Then I realized it was inside an apartment. It was shocking," Niebach said. "The flames grew very fast. Almost within 15 minutes, the flames were on the roof. Several people tried to call 911 but nobody could get through.”
Within minutes, police and fire trucks were at the scene assisting in the evacuation of people and dousing scorching flames.
Elderly residents immediately found temporary shelter and warmth in many of the shops and offices in The Market at Citadel Village on St. Albert Trail.
“They were very calm. I was surprised how calm they were. They kept thanking me and I really wasn’t doing anything,” said Niebach, who sheltered about 20 residents and provided energy drinks to firefighters.
Business owners in the area were stunned and shocked as they watched the flames engulf the building.
Many of the facility’s 110 residents were longtime customers and, in some cases, friends who dropped by for regular chats, to share family gossip, or chat about the daily news.
Dr. Melonie MacDonald, owner of Citadel Dental, closed at 4 p.m. on Thursday after a stressful day at the office. She went mountain biking in Edmonton’s river valley after work. While enjoying the fresh air, she received a series of frantic texts and photos from staff and family describing the fire.
Office colleague Dr. Christina Matrangolo texted her to tell her people who knew CPR were urgently required at the scene.
“That’s when I started speeding back,” said MacDonald, adding plumes of smoke were visible from her home in Sturgeon County. “I could see the smoke on St. Albert Trail as I came back. I hope they pardon my speeding ticket.”
She was back at the office by 8 p.m. where she discovered staff distributing blankets to keep residents warm.
“Staff went into their own houses and were giving out blankets and handing out masks to people who didn’t have them. They were comforting seniors on the street lined up in wheelchairs and walkers. I’m so proud of them.”
Even as the towering inferno turned the Citadel west building's south and east face into kindling, medical staff, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and police worked quickly to evacuate everyone safely.
“That was the most touching part – seeing how everyone stepped in without hesitation,” said MacDonald.
Over at Olympia Liquor, manager Gurdeep Singh threw open his doors to more than 20 residents, who stepped inside waiting to call family and friends.
“People were OK. One lady was having problems breathing, but a nurse was here. I gave her water and offered what I could. I asked if she needed an ambulance, but she refused. She was waiting for her son,” Singh said.
He said all residents in his store left by 9 p.m., either with family or on supplied busing to a safe location. While they entered from the front doors, they left through the back doors.
“There was so much heat from the fire out front and so much water in the street. It was better to go out the back.”
Singh has managed Olympia Liquor for two years and has built up a steady clientele from the Citadel Mews complex. But it's more than business. They are also a community of friends.
“I was thinking about them when I saw the fire. When I saw them come out of the building, I was glad. And it was a good thing everyone offered to have them sit in a car or go into one of the businesses. I was not concerned about the business. It still goes on. Life is the first and most important thing.”
None of the businesses directly facing Citadel Mews West suffered damages. However, RioCan, the company that owns and operates The Market at Citadel Village, has planned a cleanup that includes installing new air filters and washing soot and ashes from the fire off of windows and storefronts.