'Everything is gone': Family left with nothing as community rallies around townhouse fire victims
Builder says homes met all fire rating requirements amid questions about safety
On Monday morning Linton Thomas woke up to his wife shouting a single word — "fire!"
She'd been awakened by something that at first sounded like thunder and raindrops, but when she looked outside all she could see was red flames consuming their neighbour's home and fence.
By the time Thomas glanced out the window the fire had already jumped the gap between the houses and was licking at the bedroom window.
He grabbed his car keys from the bedside table and tried to pull on a pair of jeans as he stumbled down the stairs, one leg in and the other out, yelling at his children to get outside.
"We grabbed all the kids and just ran out," he said. "We didn't get a chance to grab anything. In less than no time we were outside and our unit was on fire."
When he got outside Thomas dropped on the grass and started started crying as he watched the fire destroy their home and everything in it.
Within a matter of moments all of their belongings were gone and they were homeless.
On Tuesday he woke up to the sound of his wife's tears.
His youngest children, a four-year-old and six-year-old, keep asking to go home.
His older children, a 16-year-old and 20-year-old, are still in disbelief.
He doesn't know how to explain to them what happened.
Eleven townhomes were destroyed in the fire on Edenrock Drive, near Fifty Road and Barton Street East. Fire officials estimate the damage will be in the millions.
But Thomas and his family bear an additional challenge on top of those faced by the rest of the tight-knit Winona community now tied together in grief and disbelief after the fire — they don't own the home they lived in.
They were renters, said Thomas, and shortly before the fire that took everything from them they decided to cancel their tenant's insurance in an attempt to keep their heads above water after his wife lost her job because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I know people will judge me, but they weren't in my place," he said, standing in front of the blackened shell that had housed his family for more than a year. "We didn't know this was coming."
City says homes were inspected
The Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM) said it expected its on-site investigation to be completed Tuesday. The fire started outside, according to a spokesperson, who said investigators believe the wind fanned the flames and helped the fire spread quickly.
Following the blaze, questions have been raised about whether proper fire protections were in place between the units.
John Lane, manager of building inspections for Hamilton, said records show all of the townhouses "were inspected for compliance with the Ontario Building Code, including the fire separations between the individual units."
The building division is awaiting the findings from the OFM, he added.
Chelsea Mogridge, sales manager for Losani Homes, which built the townhouses, said they were constructed nearly 10 years ago and were designed in accordance with the provincial building code and "all applicable fire rating requirements."
"We have offered our full assistance to the fire marshal in charge of the ongoing investigation," she stated. "We are happy that everyone is safe and we will do what we can to make this difficult time easier.
In the meantime, friends, family and community members are rallying around those who lost so much with a number of fundraisers.
Camece Samms, who worships with Thomas and his family at Solid Rock Christian Assembly in Etobicoke, has started a GoFundMe campaign for them.
The family is staying at a nearby hotel right now, but their biggest concern is where they're going to go in the future.
"Everyone is talking about insurance but that's not necessarily going to help them out at this point in time," she said.
"This is a hard-working, dedicated family who are willing to give the clothes off their backs to anyone in need. I know that if somebody was in this situation they would be the first ones to give."
Cat found after fire
Shelley Baker-Gracie, a sales representative with the Mazza Team, is part of an effort to support every family affected by the fire.
"The list of people that are putting their hands up is absolutely, incredibly overwhelming," she explained.
On Tuesday she filled her SUV with clothes, toiletries and shoes for people who fled the flames, all funded by an anonymous donor. They're also working to replace electronics and looking to set up a location to sort through other donations.
Baker-Gracie said one of the families who lost their home was actually a client of hers. They were supposed to meet Tuesday to evaluate the home with plans to put it on the market later this week.
"Their house has been totally destroyed," she said.
But there is a glimmer of good news. The couple escaped with their dog, but feared their cat, Harper, was lost in the fire.
"Harper was found last night by the firemen in one of the front rooms and was taken to an animal hospital," according to Baker-Gracie. However the animal's owners now face a "substantial" bill for veterinary services.
The real estate agent has also shared other images of missing pets on social media "in hopes we can bring some piece of hope back to these families."
Thomas is searching for hope too.
He said he's trying to be strong for his family, but outside the house he described feeling like he was "crumbling" inside and tears were in his eyes. His wife couldn't even get out of the van to inspect the damage.
"There is no way, nothing can be salvaged from that," he said, pointing at what was left of his home. "I highly doubt it."
He also spoke about his oldest son, who came back from working nights to find fire trucks and flames destroying the basement room he'd just started to set up by buying his first TV and bed to make the space his own.
"Everything was up in flames. I looked at him and his eyes were just filled with tears," said Thomas. "Everything is gone."