North

Few answers on Hay River highrise fire, 1 year later

It's been one year since about 150 people were displaced after a fire started in Hay River's only high rise building. There are few answers for when the building will be reopened and what started the fire.

The fire forced about 150 people from their homes

Racheal Martel was one of many people impacted by the Hay River highrise fire on May 15, 2019. She looked for housing for 11 months, and has only recently found a place to rent. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

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. 

Smoke billows out of Mackenzie Place on March 15, 2019. The fire displaced about 150 people over a year ago, but few have answers on the future of the building. (Submitted by Gabrielle Sky Landrie)

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. 

A sign warning of asbestos is posted outside the Hay River highrise. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

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. 

'Everything's gone'

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. 

Therese Singering, 62, came back to Hay River six months after the highrise fire to fiund all of her belongings in the garbage. She's been told her name is at the top of the list for public housing, but she hasn't heard anything back in the last year. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

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. 

Tom Makepeace stands in front of the Hay River highrise. He says he wants the federal, territorial and local government to figure out a plan for the building. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

"[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. 

Harry Satdeo, owner of Mackenzie Place, did not respond to CBC's requests for comment. (Walter Strong/CBC)

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.

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