911 call from Whitby fire that killed 3 teens brings courtroom to tears

A coroner’s inquest into two GTA fires got underway Tuesday, beginning with a fire that killed three teenagers in Whitby nearly four years ago.

Durham police constable who was first on scene questioned response timing by firefighters

A coroner's inquest into a Whitby fire that killed three teens nearly four years ago opened on Tuesday with the 911 call placed by the victims. (Ivy Cuervo/CBC)

A coroner's inquest into two GTA fires got underway Tuesday, beginning with a fire that killed three teenagers in Whitby nearly four years ago.

The first exhibit heard Tuesday was the 911 call the victims placed as the fire tore through the home. The teens were trapped on the second floor.

Family members of the victims left the courtroom before the replay of the call, in which the teens can be heard screaming for help. Those who remained in the courtroom were reduced to tears.

Police and firefighters were called to a house at 917 Dundas Street West in Whitby in the early morning hours of April 29, 2012. Benjamin Twiddy, 19, rented an apartment in the home. Two friends — Hollie Towie, 17, and Holly Harrison, 18 — were visiting at the time.

The fire was deemed an accident, but a coroner's inquest is probing safety in the home, which had been divided into multiple units, including how many working smoke alarms were inside. The inquest will also look at the timing of firefighters' response to the blaze.

The first witness was an officer with the Durham Regional Police Service who was one of the first emergency responders to arrive at the scene.

Const. Andrew Chmelowsky said he and his partner arrived at the home before firefighters, which was very uncommon.

"Rarely do I beat the fire department to a call," said Chmelowsky, who said he felt that the response from the fire department was slow even though a fire hall was just a few hundred metres away.

According to Chmelowsky, two young firefighters arrived at the scene and seemed ready to make their way into the home, but were held back by a supervisor.

"My thinking is, 'get moving, let's go, there's people in there,'" he said.

Once firefighters got into the house, Chmelowsky said, he watched as one came out and tried to get one of the teens onto a stretcher. Instead, the firefighter dropped him on his head, he said.

'You lose a lot of sleep'

First responders found the entire incident traumatic, Chmelowsky said, and had a tough time dealing with their experience that night.

"You lose a lot of sleep over it," he said. "It affected a lot of people at the scene. They were not good."

Jeannette Adams, Holly Harrison's mother, said Tuesday that her daughter left behind many grieving friends and family.

"She had a purpose, she had a goal to achieve," Adams said. "She loves kids, and she loves animals."

She said she hopes that another tragedy like the one that took her daughter's life can be prevented.

"What they're trying to do is have things in place going forward to help save other families so they don't have to endure this," Adams said. "And I think that's a wonderful thing."

The inquest into the two fires will hear from a total of 53 witnesses and is expected to last for eight weeks.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.