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Families recall panic, fear while tracking down loved ones as St. Albert complex burned

“I saw the smoke. I pulled up and oriented myself where his suite would be and then I panicked. His suite was almost ground zero, except on the fourth floor.”
Colette fire
Collette Cadieux was sitting in her chair at the Citadel Mews seniors’ complex Thursday night when she saw that the shrub outside her patio door was on fire. SUPPLIED PHOTO

Collette Cadieux was sitting in her chair at the Citadel Mews West seniors’ complex in St. Albert Thursday night when she saw a glow outside her patio door. 

Her first thought was that it was the flashing light of an ambulance, but she soon realized the shrub outside her window was ablaze. 

The 68-year-old pressed a button to get help from a nurse, but decided she had to act more quickly, and ran into the hallway and started shouting for help. 

She made it out of the building still dressed in her pyjamas, slippers, and blanket. The rest of her possessions were left behind to perish.

Though the cause of the fire is still unknown, Collette is certain it originated somewhere near her suite. Collette's daughter, Chantelle Cadieux, said her mom doesn’t have a kitchen or anything in her living space that could have sparked the fire.

Chantelle learned of the fire when her mother's neighbour sent her a photo informing her that, not only was the building her mom lived in going up in flames, but the suite her mom lived in was on fire, too.  

“I was so scared because I couldn't get ahold of her,” Chantelle said. She had tried to call her mom’s landline.

For about an hour, panic set in as Chantelle, a teacher who is currently in isolation at her home from a COVID-19 exposure, didn’t know her mother's fate. She couldn’t go out to look for her, but said in her heart she felt she would be OK.

“I was just feeling more helpless because I wanted to help the situation,” Chantelle said.

Chantelle Cadieux's sister Carrie Sleno also found out about the fire from the neighbour. She immediately called the nurses at the home but they were evacuating everybody and couldn't confirm if her mom was OK.

Chantelle waited without word on her mom's well-being as the building burned. She got the call from her mom an hour later. She told her she was out of the building and safe in a vehicle with a "good samaritan" who had let her use a cellphone. 

“It was such a relief to hear her voice,” Chantelle said.

Sleno said the people who took her mom in let her stay in their vehicle for at least an hour after she had been evacuated.

Many other families experienced the same fear and panic after learning about the fire but not knowing how to reach their loved ones.

Glenda Addison’s mother, Joyce Dick, 91, was rescued from the Citadel Care Centre, a long-term care building next to Citadel Mews West which was evacuated as a precaution but did not catch fire. The two buildings are connected by a pedway.

Addison got a text Thursday from a colleague that one of the Citadel buildings was on fire and drove over to see if it was her mom’s building. When Addison arrived she saw some smoke and no flames but saw people were being evacuated from the Citadel Mews West building. Dick’s building wasn’t being evacuated at the time, and staff told her they didn’t need any help with the west building. Addison left the area thinking her mom was safe.

By the time she got home Addison saw pictures on social media of the west building covered in flames.

“As soon as we saw the pictures of the fire we were concerned because we just didn’t know,” she said.

At first she didn’t know where to find her mom, but Addison finally heard that residents had been evacuated to Costco, and it was there that she was reunited with Dick. 

“I can't even describe it. It was just a range of emotions,” Addison said.

Guardian angel

Dick, who is “pretty with it” but who doesn’t walk, was helped out of the building by a guardian angel, Addison said.

A woman named Debbie (she doesn't know her last name) whose mother lived in the same building as Dick, made sure Dick made it out safely, too.

Debbie saw Dick sitting in her wheelchair outside her room and sent her own mother off with her daughter. She stayed with Dick to make sure she made it out safely.

“She made sure my mom had a quilt to put on her. She put towels on her head. She got her to help. She got her to the top of the stairs so people can carry her down the stairs because she's in a wheelchair,” Addison said.

Volunteers helped carry many long-term care residents and seniors who don’t walk down the stairs as the elevators were not working. Once down the stairs, Debbie sent her daughter on the bus with Dick so she wasn’t alone.

As Addison stood in the parking lot looking at her mom through the window of the bus that transported her to the St. Albert Inn for the night, she said Debbie came up and told her how her mom was rescued

“It's like she was her guardian angel. I know (my mom) would have been safe, but the fact that this stranger was there for her own mother and took control and helped to get my mom out and made sure that she had someone to go with her on the bus so she wasn't by herself is truly amazing,” Addison said.

 “And that just sums up the way that everybody stepped up to the plate (that) night.”

Hundreds of heroes

Richard Belley was watching the Edmonton Oilers game on Thursday night when he got a phone call from his ex-wife informing him that his father’s seniors’ home was on fire.

Richard immediately called his father, Maurice Belley, who is usually home to watch the Oilers games, but he didn’t answer.

“I started to get a little concerned,” Richard said. He decided to hop in his car and find his dad.

When he arrived he saw the smoke and the building on fire and quickly realized his father’s suite was covered in flames.

“I saw the smoke. I pulled up and oriented myself where his suite would be and then I panicked. His suite was almost ground zero, except on the fourth floor,” Richard said.

After searching the businesses in the area, Richard went to the Citadel Care Centre next to the burning building, where he found his father.

“I ran into the lobby of that building and he was sitting there at the back, and I walked up and I hugged him,” Richard said.

Many seniors from the burning building had been shuttled through a second-floor pedway into the building next door, but as the flames grew, emergency responders decided to evacuate the second building, too.

St. Albert RCMP were asking for any able-bodied people to help lift residents down the stairs from the second floor and Richard jumped in to help.

“That's when there was the most danger to those people. It wasn't the fire so much as being hand-bombed down two flights of stairs, in a wheelchair with no control of their body to stop themselves from falling or grab on anything,”  Richard said.

“That’s when I was the most concerned.”

Richard helped get several residents down the stairs before his tendinitis flared up, and he then moved to handing out masks, and eventually helped bring medical records out of the building.

“Then the oxygen bottles started coming out because there were some explosions. Everyone in that building is on oxygen and …those started popping like popcorn … and it was like a war zone,” Richard said.

While the scene may sound chaotic, Richard said the situation was under control, although many residents were confused about what was happening.

“The way the common residents of St. Albert went into the building that the people were evacuated to, carrying wheelchairs down stairs, carrying people down in gurneys and stretchers, taking medical records and putting them in safe locations, helping wordlessly — it just happened organically,” Richard said.

Lives saved; memories gone

While almost all seniors were brought safely out of the fire, with three sent to hospital for treatment, the human toll of the tragedy remains low, but many residents lost everything that was precious to them in the fire.

“Everything you have left is everything that matters to you,” Richard said of the residents in the home.

The fire took the Belleys’ historical family photos, an old grandfather clock, and a solid maple bedroom suite that was given to Richard’s mom at her high-school graduation.

For Richard, a connection with his late mother, who passed away three years ago, was lost.

“That was the last place that she lived with my dad, so anything that she touched or anywhere she sat or anywhere that he holds dear to my mom is gone,” Richard said.

“At this point, this transcends materialism because it’s spirituality. Literally my mother's soul was in those items. It's so sad.”

Chantelle said her mother lost so much in the fire, too.

The Cadieuxs lost family photos, her mother’s medical supplies, kids' art, her mom’s favourite chair, and all her clothes.

“That was all she had,” Chantelle said.

“She’s lost everything twice because you lose everything the first time when you go into a home. You have to downsize and make decisions about what to keep and what not to keep. And we had to do that for her because she was in the hospital. So she feels like she’s lost everything again.”

Her mother, Collette, had lived in Citadel for almost three years and now her home is gone, she said.

The next day

Addison isn’t sure what her mom has lost in the fire, as she lived in the building next to the one that went up in flames.

“We don't know what the smoke damage was,” said Addison.

She said her mom was doing OK the day after the fire, but tired after a long and eventful night.

Sleno said her mom was pretty shaken up after the incident. 

"I think a little disoriented in terms of being out of her routine," Sleno said. Her mom has a lot of the routine of her supportive-living home. 

"The lack of routine and lack of sleep and that dramatic thing (that) night has made her a little bit more confused and a little bit more shaken."

Sleno said her mom is starting to come to terms with what happened. 

"She's just kind of coming to terms with the reality of the situation, which is losing all your stuff, and then not knowing where you're going to go, which is kind of scary."

Richard said the reality of the loss is still sinking in with his dad.

“He said ‘I don’t think the full weight of this has hit me yet,’ ” Richard said.

“But it hit me at about three this morning. I started crying like a little baby, shaking over what was lost. Everything that was saved is great — the people — but everything they hold dear (is gone). You funnel your possessions down to only things that matter.”

Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

About the Author: Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for Great West Media based in St. Albert, Alta.
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