Refugee family grateful to be alive after incredible 2nd-storey escape from fire

A family of five say they are counting their blessings after escaping a devastating house fire in Dartmouth, N.S., with their lives but little else.

'We are good. We are safe. I hope we will be better very soon,' Assinath Muhindo says

Assinath Muhindo and her three children are now getting settled into a temporary home in Dartmouth, N.S., following last Friday's fire. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Assinath Muhindo wasn't sure she'd make it out of her family's home alive when she woke up to find flames consuming it

Muhindo and her three children are now settling into a temporary home in Dartmouth, N.S., while Muhindo's husband, Etienne Basenge, remains in hospital. They made it out of the fire with their lives, but little else.

Muhindo said they feel blessed.

"We are good. We are safe. I hope we will be better very soon," she said Tuesday.

This is a mattress that was found at the fire scene. A singed shirt can be seen at one end. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Early Friday morning, Basenge woke up to find their rented townhouse cold and went downstairs to check the furnace. It exploded while Muhindo and the three kids were sleeping upstairs. 

Flames burned Basenge's legs, arms and face as he ran up two floors to alert the family and help get them to safety. 

"The worst part is when I saw … everything burn in two minutes … there was fire everywhere around our house," Muhindo said.

She said her husband threw a small mattress from their son's room out the second-floor window to try to soften their landing.

Firefighters spent about five hours getting the fire under control. (Nikolas C Steen/Facebook)

"The fire was very fast," she said. "He jumped after Roger [their son]. His skin was coming off everywhere … he was very much pain."

Muhindo, the last one to jump, was struggling to breathe and their nine-year-old daughter, Divine, and four-year-old son, Regis, broke their arms in the fall. 

Neighbours called 911 and an ambulance rushed Basenge and then Muhindo to hospital. A third took the children to the IWK Health Centre.

'Nothing less than heroic'

Ralph Yarn, the family's minister, said Basenge's actions "were nothing less than heroic." 

"[He] had the presence of mind to cast a mattress out in such a position that they were able to jump to it, catch the children as they came down, and then they were able to escape the fire," Yarn said. 

"Without his actions, my personal opinion is that it would be much more tragic in the outcome." 

Two of the children, Regis, 4, and Divine, 9, suffered broken arms after jumping out of their townhouse. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Muhindo remembers being in the hospital, wondering what happened to her family. 

"I was no feeling anything — pain, nothing. I was thinking, 'My kids, my kids, my kids.' I asked, 'Where is my kids? How is my husband? Is he OK?'"

Though seven-year-old Roger hopes to see his father at Christmas, it's likely Basenge will spent the next three weeks in hospital. Much of his body is burned, including his legs, abdomen, left wrist, right shoulder and part of his face.

His wife has been visiting every day and said she's seeing progress. Though he's in a great deal of pain, he is able to lift a glass to drink now, she said.

Muhindo was the last to jump from a second-storey window in her family's rental home. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Trouble with the furnace  

Muhindo said the evening before the fire, she called their property manager after discovering black smoke coming out of the vents in the children's rooms. 

She said someone responded within half an hour, and technicians checked the furnace. They told her they'd be back Friday to clean the furnace and switch the batteries in the smoke detector, Muhindo said. 

She said she doesn't blame them for the fire. 

The entire family — Roger, 7, Divine, 9, and Regis, 4, with their parents — on vacation earlier this year. (Submitted by Assinath Muhindo)

"They helped. They came and they checked," she said. "Sometimes bad things happen, I know. We are human. I'm not upset, no.… Good thing I have my family. All of us are alive."

Halifax Fire said Friday that the fire started in the furnace room and paperwork from the inspection showed the furnace was in good working order. The investigation is still underway.

The Canadian Red Cross said it is helping Muhindo's family and nine other people who were displaced from the eight-unit strip. Three other townhouses were damaged by smoke and need to be cleaned and repaired. 

Several brushes with death

This isn't the family's first brush with death. They fled the Congo and lived in a refugee camp in Rwanda before coming to Canada as refugees. Muhindo said at one point, her husband went missing for five days and people threatened to kill him because he wouldn't fight in the civil war. 

In February, Basenge was in a car crash in New Glasgow and his car flipped three times. He hurt his leg, but wasn't badly injured.

Muhindo called their survival a "miracle from God."

Muhindo and Basenge on vacation in Ottawa in the summer. Basenge remains in hospital with severe burns. (Submitted by Assinath Muhindo)

Since Friday, neighbours, co-workers, people from the Red Cross, the family's church and the children's school have been dropping by with supplies, food and even Christmas trees. Someone set up a fundraiser within hours of the fire.

Muhindo said she's thankful for all the support that's come, even from strangers.

"We are in good country, good people, helpful people. So hope very soon we'll be more, more better," she said.

With files from Elizabeth Chiu