Two overnight workers who came across a burning bus shelter in Berwick, N.S., say they were horrified to learn a homeless man was inside.
The body of Harley Lawrence — believed to be the town's only homeless man who was at the centre of an ongoing public discussion about homelessness in rural areas — was found by police early Wednesday morning.
Shannon Taylor and James Harvey were on Commercial Street around 2 a.m. on Wednesday getting ready to deliver newspapers.
Taylor said she noticed something was amiss when she saw a fire truck.
“I got down almost to the Pharmasave, and I seen the bus shelter on fire,” she said.
She called Harvey immediately.
“There was like an orange glow, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” he said. “Then I seen the fire here at the bus shelter.”
The two pulled over into the nearby Foodland parking lot.
“I seen the back wall of the shelter collapse as I drove around it,” said Harvey.
“The flames were about a foot and a half off the ground. Totally encompassing what was in there, which later turned out to be Harley."
The man said he didn’t want to believe what he was seeing.
“It looked like a heap of leaves that were on fire. I kept saying to myself, 'That’s got to be it. That’s got to be it.’ Because knowing that he always sleeps in the shelter I didn’t want him to be there."
He kept asking if Lawrence was inside. After the firefighters doused the flames, he spoke to a police officer.
“The officer dropped his head and said yes," he said.
Harvey described the situation as "utter horror." He said he has had trouble sleeping after witnessing what happened.
“It was the worst thing anybody could ever imagine,” he said, still clearly distraught from the incident. “Just imagining what he must’ve went through.
“Yesterday was my birthday. One birthday I’ll never forget … when I close my eyes that’s all I could see.”
Taylor also said she's had trouble sleeping.
“You don’t think something like that would happen in a small town like this," she said.
Medical examiner wants more information
Harvey and Taylor both gave statements to police.
About 20 minutes before they saw the flames, they had parked across from a gas station to bag their newspapers.
That's when they saw two young men walk up to the pumps.
“They were carrying what looked like a windshield washer jug,” said Taylor.
She said the men moved quickly.
“One was pumping gas at the furthest gas pump away from the store, so it would be the closest one to us, and one went in and paid for gas. It was probably a matter of two minutes, they were in and out. And then they took off in a hurry,” she said.
RCMP won't confirm if what they saw is significant, or just a coincidence.
An autopsy was performed on Thursday morning, but the medical examiner’s office said it is seeking more information in Lawrence’s death.
Police have not confirmed what killed Lawrence, but are treating his death as suspicious.
The Annapolis Valley Mental Health Services and the police's victim services program are offering counselling and support from 4:30 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. AT at the Kings Mutual Century Centre and Berwick Fire Hall Thursday and Friday nights.