2 firefighters killed in Winnipeg blaze were 'great guys'

Two Winnipeg firefighters who died while battling a fire Sunday night that destroyed the home of an Appeal Court judge are being described as "the best guys you could ever meet."

Two veteran Winnipeg firefighters who died battling a house fire Sunday night were describedMonday as "the best guys you could ever meet."

Capt. Harold Lessard, 55, and Capt. Thomas Nichols, 57, diedin the blazethatburned until Monday afternoon, destroyingthe house on Place Gabrielle Roy owned by a provincialCourt of Appeal judge.

"They were great guys, very experienced. They were two of our best captains," Alex Forrest, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg union, said of the two victims on Monday.

"It's just one of those things, that you go in, you fight a fire, and two of the best guys you could ever meet unfortunately didn't make it out," Forrest added.

Nichols had 32 years of experience with the service, while Lessard had 31. Both men were captains with Platoon 3 — Nichols was with Station 2 while Lessard was with Station 1.

Four other firefighters were injured in the fire. One of them, 51-year-old Edward Wiebe, was still in critical condition in hospital Monday night.

Lionel Crowther, 33, was in stable condition Monday, with burns to about 15 per cent of his body. Darcy Funk, 35, and Scott Atchison, 33, were both treated for minor injuries and released Sunday night.

Wiebe is an 18-year veteran of the fire-paramedic service, while Funk and Atchison have eight years of experience and Crowther has six.

Judge Richard Chartier and his wife were away on vacation when the fire erupted in their home. Their 18-year-oldson in the house at the time, but was not injured. The teenager said he was deeply saddened by the death of thetwo firefighters.

"They're heroes," said Pierre-Marc Chartier. "They're putting their lives on the line for us. We're complete strangers and they're willing to come into a burning house to help us out."

Son, friendescaped flames

He broke the news of the fire to his parents by telephone. They came home Monday afternoon, cutting their vacation short.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Pierre-Marc Chartierwas in the basement studying with a friend Sunday eveningwhen they smelled smoke.

"I went to look and I started seeing flames inside the house and it was already out of control,"Chartiersaid Monday. "Maybe10 minutes later, the whole house was engulfed in flames, and it went so fast."

Capt. Harold Lessard was 55. ((Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service))

Thetwoescaped from the housealong with the family dog, though the teenager said he left the house so quickly he was wearing two left shoes.

His sister Sophie, 20, arrived home from work to see her family's housein flames.

"There was a lot of commotion, lots of firefighters and stuff," she said. "I started walking towards my street, but somebody told me it was my house. So I started running and yeah, there it was, up in flames."

The Chartiersiblingshave beenstaying with their uncle since the fire.

Capt. Thomas Nichols was 57. ((Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service) )

Earlier in the day, at Winnipeg City Hall and the Manitoba Legislative Building, flags flew at half-mast. City councillors meeting for the city's protection and community services committee — which oversees the Fire-Paramedic Service — held a moment of silence before the meeting began.

Firefightersvictims of flashover

The twofirefighters whodied appeared to bevictims of a flashover,something that fire department Deputy Chief Ken Sim said "quickly generates heat up over 1,000 degrees," compromising their safety equipment very quickly.

"Essentially what happens, and what the indications are, is that the area becomes super-heated,"Sim said.

"It actually isn't involved in active fire, but the gases and the surfaces that are involved in that room become so hot that they begin vaporizing and they reach a point of ignition, and it's literally like a fireball that occurs in the room and it incinerates the room."

The owners of the house where two firefighters died were on vacation, but their son and a friend were in the home when the fire started. ((Winnipeg Free Press/Boris Minkevich/Canadian Press))

Crews were alerted to the fire about 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Place Gabrielle Roy,acul-de-sac neighbourhood across from the French Quarter of St. Boniface.

Witnesses forced from their homes said it seemed the firefighters were having great difficulty controlling the flames.

"The garage was fully collapsed, the roof was collapsed. Total chaos otherwise," said resident Marc Gagnon, who saw the blaze before being forced out of his own home by police.

"Everyone has been evacuated from the 13 houses in the bay and we're just waiting to see what comes next."

Some of the neighbours have since been allowed to return to their homes.

Investigation could take months

The investigation into the tragedy could take months, Forrest said, butit appeared the firemen became trapped whileperforming a search-and-rescue operation on the second floor.

Crews fighting the blaze had to contend with outdoor temperatures of -39 C.

Forrest said he was confident the crews followed proper procedure entering the house to search for people, despite reports that its occupants were out.

"We get told all the time, 'there's no one in the house,' we go in there and we find people," he said."We can't take that chance. That's why we go in."

While they havelost all of their possessions and the house they grew up in, Sophie Chartier said she's most devastated by the knowledge that two firefighters died fighting the blaze at her home.

"That's, I think, what hit me the most, what kept me up at night, because knowing that they're not coming home, you know," she said."At least we have our family."

With files from the Canadian Press