'I could see his hair on fire': Witness recalls horrors of fatal apartment fire

Grace Williams was among more than 500 people evacuated from downtown apartment fire Thursday night that killed one resident and injured another.

One person died when a fire broke out in the Oliver Place tower

'Somebody fell from the balcony': Witnesses recall downtown fire

7 years ago
Duration 1:03
Witnesses to a fatal fire in downtown Edmonton describe seeing a man on fire and someone falling from a balcony during the panicked evacuation from Oliver Place Apartments Thursday night.

The man's hair was on fire.

Grace Williams looked up at the balcony above hers and saw something she'll never forget.

"I could see a man burning, asking for help," she said. "He was twitching, with his left and his right hand on the railing, screaming.

"Right above my apartment."

Williams was among more than 500 people evacuated from downtown apartment fire Thursday night that killed one residents and injured another.

The fire broke just before 7 p.m. on the seventh floor of the Oliver Place Apartments building near Jasper Avenue and 118th Street.

A stretch of Jasper Avenue was closed to traffic during the evacuation effort, while 90 firefighters battled the blaze.

When firefighters arrived, flames were shooting out from a corner suite balcony. A black plume of smoke that billowed out from the 17-storey apartment tower could be seen blocks away.

Emergency officials have not released any details on the identity of the person who died.

'When I close my eyes, I can still see him screaming'

Williams, who lives in unit 411, said she smelled smoke shortly after the fire alarms rang. She went out to her balcony to investigate.

That's when she heard screams, and looked up at a man gripping the railing on the balcony above. Five-foot flames flared from the apartment windows and danced up the side of the building.

"I look up and I see the gentleman, he's just hanging ... right there and he was screaming for help. And I could see his hair on fire. I could see his mouth moving."

Debris from the fire started raining down from above. Fearing for her life, Williams fled.

She said Friday morning she doesn't know what happened to the man she saw. 

"When I close my eyes, I can still see him screaming for help. And I couldn't do a thing."

Chris Yushkevich was coming home from work when he saw smoke billowing from the windows. The alarms were sounding but fire trucks had yet to arrive.

What started as a calm scene, he said, soon turned into pandemonium.

"All I know is somebody fell from the balcony, and that was a six-floor drop onto concrete," he said in an interview with CBC News.

"That lady in that apartment, I knew her. I used to help her carry her groceries to her apartment … we were neighbours.

"It's just tragic … I don't know if I'm ever going to see her again."

Yushkevich said he has seen many fires before. But this was something new.

"I've never witnessed anything like that before," he said. I'm at a loss for words"

One dead in apartment fire in downtown Edmonton

7 years ago
Duration 0:16
One person is dead and another is injured during this apartment fire at Oliver Place on Thursday night. Credit: Murray Billett

On Friday morning, emergency services spokesperson Kristi Bland said most residents have returned to their suites, with the exception of some on the seventh, eighth and ninth floors.

Five suites were damaged by fire, smoke and water. Others that were near the fire still have to be assessed before residents will be allowed to return.

The Canadian Red Cross is helping 10 people with accommodations, food and clothing. Others displaced in the fire have found alternate accommodations with friends and family.

The cause of the fire remains unclear. Fire investigators remained on scene Friday morning.  

With files from Lydia Neufeld