Northern St. Albert was a scene of smoke, ash and flame Thursday night as a massive fire swept through the Citadel Mews West seniors’ complex just off St. Albert Trail.
Citadel Mews is a 110-unit assisted and independent living seniors’ complex just north of the Sturgeon Community Hospital.
St. Albert fire and ambulance crews from the city's three fire halls responded to a fire at the complex at about 8 p.m. May 6. They were later joined by units from Edmonton, Morinville, Strathcona and Spruce Grove, bringing a total of about 10 fire trucks to bear.
Gazette reporters arrived at about 8:45 p.m. By then, much of the south half of the roof of the complex was aflame, raining glowing embers onto nearby onlookers taking videos on their smartphones. High winds sent flames shooting roughly one story up into the air and shrouded the nearby businesses and the Hwy. 2/Erin Ridge Road intersection in thick, black smoke. As firefighters hosed down the structure from the ground and ladder trucks, several large chunks of debris fell from the walls, at least one of which landed atop a white Subaru parked in front of Just for You Esthetics.
Erin Ridge resident George Gilbeau said he was headed to the Shoppers Drug Mart next to the Sturgeon Hospital at about 7:45 p.m. when he saw smoke coming from the seniors’ complex. On arrival, he saw flames leaping out the window of what the Gazette later determined to be the YMCA Citadel Child Care centre located on the ground floor of the complex. Gilbeau said he was surprised to not see many people evacuating the building.
Ryken Glew and Jackson Brown, both 17, said they spotted the fire at about 7:50 p.m. from the McDonald’s across the street and ran over to check it out, arriving before any firefighters. Glew said the fire appeared to have started on the ground floor south of the west side main entrance and spread upward to the roof.
Glew, Brown and Gilbeau ran into the building to help with the evacuation, running from door to door, starting with the fourth floor and working their way down, telling residents to get out.
“You couldn’t see five feet in front of you" due to the smoke, Glew said.
Gilbeau said many of the seniors he saw in the suites were hiding in their beds out of fear.
“This is probably one of the worst (fires) I’ve ever seen, and I covered news for 20 years,” he said.
Mayor Cathy Heron, who arrived at the fire about an hour later, said all residents were safely evacuated from the building.
The lifelong St. Albert resident said this was the biggest fire she had ever seen in town.
“We’re just praying for everyone in there and praying for our firefighters.”
Alberta Health Services posted on Twitter that three people were transported to hospital due to the fire, two in serious but stable condition with smoke inhalation and one with minor lacerations. They later reported that some 129 long term care residents and 38 designated supportive living residents had been evacuated, along with residents in the independent living area.
Residents took shelter in nearby businesses and were given water and medical attention by a small army of volunteers from the Sturgeon Hospital and the community.Ashley Niebach of the nearby Herc's Nutrition hosted several of the evacuees, some of whom used the store’s phone to call family members.
“They were all very shocked to be there. They were beautiful, lovely, lovely people,” she said.
“Everybody was very calm and everybody was very collected. I was very surprised, considering all that was going on.”
Niebach said it was heartbreaking to see senior residents displaced.
“I had one lady in here, and she didn’t know her family’s name. She kept getting her last name confused, she didn’t have a number for someone to call ... my heart was just breaking,” she said.
“I found a police officer, and the police officer escorted her to a bus.”
While some seniors took evacuation buses to other care centres or the St. Albert Inn, others went home with relatives.
Citadel Mews resident Leona Stroh was one of the latter, and was being walked across the Shoppers Drug Mart parking lot wrapped in a blanket by her daughter and grandson when the Gazette encountered her.
Stroh said she didn’t think much of the fire alarm at first, as she had been through several false alarms in the past, but decided to head out anyway.
“I was quite surprised it was a real one.”
Stroh said she and several other residents took shelter in the Olympia Liquor store next to the seniors’ complex. She planned to spend the next few days at her daughter’s house.
“It still hasn’t sunk in,” she said of the fire.
“I don’t know what’s happened in there, or if I have a home or not.”
Fire crews finished dousing hot spots at the fire Friday morning. By then, top floor of the south half of the building looked mostly gutted, while the north half seemed intact. A small lake had formed in the south-side parking lot from water flowing down from the building.
In a press conference Friday, St. Albert acting fire chief Scott Wilde said the building suffered "excessive" damage, with about half the units damaged by the flames and the rest by the water. Crews were now investigating the cause of the fire.
To read the initial breaking news piece, click here.
With files from Brittany Gervais.