Family of Ukrainian refugees grateful to be alive after Winnipeg apartment fire
'We ran from the war, and we know the necessities we had to take,' says Alona Pluzhnyk
A family of three Ukrainian refugees in Winnipeg were rescued through their third-storey window after being trapped by thick smoke inside a burning apartment building on Thursday.
"It's unbelievable," Alona Pluzhnyk told CBC News after she and her 62-year-old mother and 10-year-old daughter safely escaped St. Josaphat Selo-Villa, an eight-storey highrise for people 55 and older, on McGregor Street between Stella and Flora avenues.
The family was living there thanks to efforts of the affiliated Ukrainian Catholic church, Sts. Vladimir and Olga Cathedral.
They are now among 18 people displaced by the fire, which was contained to a third-floor suite, although several other areas sustained smoke and water damage, according to Andrew Radawetz, interim property manager at the residence.
The Pluzhnyk family has been in Winnipeg since September after fleeing the war in Ukraine almost one year ago. This is the second time they've lost everything.
They managed to stuff some documents and phones in a backpack and throw it out the window before climbing onto firefighter ladders, Pluzhnyk said.
"We ran from the war, and we know the necessities we had to take."
Emergency crews were called just before 1:30 a.m. to the building.
Multiple 911 calls came in about a number of occupants trapped in the building due to heavy smoke in the hallways, a news release from the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service said.
Pluzhnyk said she initially wasn't too worried about the alarm, as there had been a false alarm a couple days before.
She opened the door to her hallway but didn't see or smell any smoke, so went back inside. But after she opened a window, she eventually began to smell smoke.
Pluzhnyk went back to the hallway, where a wall of black smoke had formed near the door to her apartment, she said.
She woke her mother and daughter. Smoke began to enter their suite as they dressed, she said.
"At that time, we understood that everything was serious," said Pluzhnyk.
"There was one moment where I was afraid, because we couldn't go through the hall or through the window."
Traumatizing incident: resident
In addition to the Pluzhnyks, one other person had to be rescued through an exterior window.
Firefighters also helped several residents with disabilities get down the stairs and out of the building.
Marc Poirier, a neighbour of the Pluzhnyks, was one of the people escorted from the building, along with his 72-year-old mother and 12-year-old cat, Big Boi.
"It's not fun breathing in black smoke for almost an hour," Poirier told CBC.
He thought the fire alarm was "nothing major" when it woke him shortly after 1 a.m., but soon realized they were trapped in their suite.
Poirier struggled to help his mother and his cat hold their heads out of the window to breathe in fresh air.
"The only escape route would have been to jump, and I don't know what I would have done with my mother," who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and uses a walker, he said.
He lives in the 55-plus building because he has a degenerative disc in his back which is slowly paralyzing him, he said.
Eventually, firefighters banged on the door and escorted them out. Poirier's mother walked to the end of the hallway before she collapsed, he said.
He's now staying at a hotel with Big Boi, but his mother remains in hospital and continues to struggle with breathing.
He worries for her and other third-floor residents. The incident was also traumatizing for Poirier, who said he finds himself checking the door of his hotel room for smoke.
"I hope nobody ever has to live through it, because it's almost like your life is flashing before your eyes."
After the fire was put out, firefighters gave residents five minutes to retrieve necessary items. Poirier said the whole hallway was black and there was water everywhere.
He says there has not been much communication about when residents can return to the building.
"I just have to wait because I have nowhere else to go," adding that he'd like to see fundraising efforts to support the people displaced.
He also called the Pluzhnyks the "strongest people in the world."
"They lost everything there [in Ukraine], and they lost everything here," he said.
Alona Pluzhnyk and her family are also staying at a hotel.
"We don't know when we'll come back to our apartment," she said. "I don't know how we can go to school. I don't know how I can live."
Although her family has only the bare necessities now, Pluzhnyk said they are grateful to still have their lives.
"Sometimes, people can be happy with nothing."
With files from Darren Bernhardt, Erin Brohman and Matt Humphrey