Fort McMurray couple welcomes tenants with clean building and jerk chicken
'We knew that we had a part to play in the rebuilding of Fort McMurray,' restaurateurs says
For the second time, building manager Jeff Peddle rolled up his sleeves to make a home out of a once-notorious downtown Fort McMurray apartment complex.
The first time, he cleaned the 498-suite complex of criminal activity to a point where police declared it crime free.
Now Peddle is at it again. But instead of bullet holes and death threats, he faced a blanket of ash and the smell of decay emanating from the hundreds of fridges in the building.
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Peddle was able to return to Fort McMurray a few days early to start the clean-up process. He and his staff worked 20-hour days to get the building ready for tenants.
He wore a gas mask while getting on his hands and knees to clean out fridges.
"It was important for owners and tenants when they came home to see normal life," he said.
Peddle remembers the day, over a month ago, when the fire struck Fort McMurray. He recalls the 15-storey flames that could be seen just over the hill.
He ran inside telling everyone to get out. People thought he was crazy, he said, until they went outside and saw the flames themselves.
Later, Peddle received text messages from those people's' spouses and loved ones thanking him for helping them reach safety.
Now some of those people are starting to return.
When tenants trickled in as part of the voluntary return to Fort McMurray, Peddle greeted them with hugs and handshakes. People are eager to thank him for the work he did to restore their homes.
"I think Fort McMurray is a town of survivors and strong-willed people," he said. "They want to just get back to work and get back to their lives."
But for Peddle's wife, Maxine Willocks, the work is just beginning. Willocks runs a popular Jamaican restaurant in the Syncrude Towers, called Chez Max.
She's been standing behind the counter alone, working as the only cook, dishwasher, and server.
The couple worked tirelessly to get the restaurant ready so they could provide food to returnees.
Everything in the kitchen has to be thrown out and taken away immediately, so the odour didn't attract bears.
The spoiled jerk chicken, goat curry and other food filled four massive containers.
"We wanted to give up, but we knew we had a part to play in the rebuilding of Fort McMurray," Willocks said.
Now, the restaurant is open for businesses and ready to feed hungry residents who are rebuilding their own lives.
Willocks said it's incredibly hard work, especially on her own. Her staff haven't been able to return to their homes yet.
This week a woman came to Chez Max looking for food for 40 people, who had worked up an appetite cleaning out homes.
"I can't say no to that," she said.
The long hours and hard work haven't dampened the couple's spirits. Around the brightly painted restaurant, a positive slogan is written on the wall.
"Live the life you love, love the life you live."
That's just what they're trying to do.