Few answers on Hay River highrise fire, 1 year later
The fire forced about 150 people from their homes
Racheal Paulette Martel says she was on her way to check the mail when one of her neighbours ran up to her and told her the highrise apartment building where she lived in Hay River, N.W.T, was on fire.
Martel turned around and saw smoke pouring out of a unit near the top of Mackenzie Place, known to locals as "the highrise."
"There was really nothing we could do," Martel said. "We just stood there and watched … we weren't allowed back in, so what we had on is what we had on."
Martel had spent six years trying to rent an apartment at the highrise, but was often refused because of her previous criminal record, she said. She was finally approved for a unit in 2018.
The fire at the 17-storey highrise on March 15, 2019, displaced about 150 residents. Many were fed and housed at the town's recreation centre, the local friendship centre, and on the K'atl'odeeche First Nation reserve, for several days afterward.
Later, residents were given fifteen minutes to re-enter their units and gather some of their personal belongings.
Martel said she filled a shopping cart full of memories of her late daughter, her ID, and a trove of Montreal Canadiens gear.
It's hard when you see that everything you have could be destroyed in a moment.- Racheal Paulette Martel, Mackenzie Place evacuee
"I don't have much left of my daughter, I have her memories," Martel said, holding back tears. "It's hard when you see that everything you have could be destroyed in a moment."
A year later, not much is known about how the fire started or when the building will be suitable for tenants. RCMP say their investigation is ongoing.
Umesh Sutendra, a spokesperson for the territory's Department of Health, said a public health order, issued on May 17, 2019, is still in place for the highrise.
Limited affordable housing options
The building is still locked and the outside is covered in asbestos warning signs. Boards line the front door. One of the building's main entrance windows is smashed.
Martel said she spent the last 11 months couch surfing with family and friends while she looked for a place to rent in Hay River. It was not easy to find a place, she said, because there are not many affordable rental units in town.
"[The fire] showed the town, in a way, how much housing that is needed," Martel said. "If the highrise doesn't open up again, no one is going to move here because there's nowhere to move to."
Martel said she keeps in touch with her old neighbours, who she calls her "highrise people." Many of them left Hay River, Martel said, after living out of their cars — unable to find a permanent home.
Others, like Elder Therese Singering, 62, are still homeless.
Singering, who is on long-term disability, lived on the fourth floor of the highrise for seven years before the fire.
Singering said she returned to Hay River in September after getting eye surgery in Edmonton, to find all her belongings had been thrown in the garbage. She had nowhere to go.
"I can barely walk, I can barely see and I still don't have a place," she said. "Everything's gone."
Community advocate Tom Makepeace said he knows other people in town who also became homeless as a result of the fire. He's concerned more of them will leave town.
"[It's] pretty staggering," Makepeace said. "How many people are we going to lose to that?"
Counc. Steve Anderson, told Hay River council last week that 66 evacuees have found private housing or been placed in public housing. Two of the tenants are still living in short-term housing but will be transferred the end of the month, he said.
Five people left the territory following the highrise fire, he said.
'Are we going to fix it up or tear it down?'
Makepeace said the federal, territorial and town governments need to find a solution.
"Are we going to fix it up or tear it down?," he asked. "Or are we just going to have an eyesore here?"
Harry Satdeo, the owner of the building, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
For Martel, she rarely thinks about the day of the fire anymore.
She now volunteers at the Dene Wellness Centre on the K'atl'odeeche reserve once a week — in the same building that once housed some of the highrise evacuees. She also house sits and walk dogs to make money.
Martel said she hopes her "high rise people" will be able to get the help they need.