Toronto

'Christmas tragedy': Cottage fire victims believed to be Toronto lawyer couple and 2 sons

A Toronto lawyer couple and their two sons are believed dead after a fire ravaged a southeastern Ontario cottage in what provincial police are calling a "Christmas tragedy."

Family's cottage near Peterborough, Ont., 'burned to the ground' on Christmas Eve: area resident

Police have not confirmed the names of the victims in the fire that ravaged a southeastern Ontario cottage on Christmas Eve, but friends say Geoff Taber, centre, was visiting there for Christmas along with his wife, two boys and two family pets. (Geoff Taber/Facebook)

A Toronto lawyer couple and their two sons are believed dead after a fire ravaged a southeastern Ontario cottage in what provincial police are calling a "Christmas tragedy."

Friends say Geoff Taber and Jacquie Gardner and their two sons were at the Hamilton Drive North residence in the McCracken's Landing area near Peterborough, about 140 kilometres northeast of Toronto, when flames broke out there before 4 a.m. ET Saturday.

Police have not confirmed the victims' identities but say two people and two family pets were found dead at the scene. Two other family members remain unaccounted for but are also presumed dead. 

Gordon Cheong, who says he lives across the street from Taber's home in Toronto's Riverdale neighbourhood, described the partner at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP as "a year-round giver," always ready to help when he could. 

'Giving all year round'

Cheong, who was part of a neighbourhood cycling group co-founded by Taber, recalled complaining to fellow members on a morning ride earlier this year that his hopes of buying Tragically Hip tickets for his wife's birthday were dashed after they sold out in minutes.

"He didn't really say anything about it at the time," Cheong said.

But later that day came a phone call from Taber. He'd managed to get four tickets and took Cheong and his wife to see the show along with one of his clients, who also loved the Hip.

"He just had a huge heart, giving all year round," Cheong said. "We talk about Christmas and giving, but Christmas, probably, to him, was just another day."

Geoff Taber and Jacquie Gardiner, along with their two sons, are believed to have died in their family cottage on Christmas Eve, after a fire broke out. (Facebook)

Cheong last spoke to Taber on Friday, just before Christmas Eve. The weather wasn't great for cycling, but Taber was enthusiastic anyway. 

"He said he just wanted to get one last ride in before the new year," said Cheong.

On Sunday morning, Cheong and some of the other cyclists with the Riverdale Riders group awoke early to ride in Taber's honour. 

"Everybody had stories about how Geoff helped and affected them on the ride... That was just Geoff."

Cottage 'burned to the ground'

The plan, Cheong said, was to eventually retire at the home near Stoney Lake, a bit northeast of Peterborough. 

After having an island property for years, the family had only recently bought the "large, wooden" mainland cottage, area resident Karl Kustor said, and were excited to come up there for Christmas. 

"Sad day. Went on a tribute ride early this morning for neighbour, friend, and fellow rider, Geoff Taber and his family," friend and neighbour of Taber, Gordon Cheong wrote on Facebook. (Gordon Cheong/Facebook)

"The boys were typical boys who played hockey, fished and truly loved the lake," said Kustor, who owns the nearby Harbour Town marina complex with his wife and said the family were longtime clients of his business.

When he went to view the fire damage this weekend, the cottage had "burned to the ground," Kustor said.

"It has been hard for any of us to think of anything else," he said.

Police not identifying victims

Provincial police Const. Jason Folz said the fire marshal is searching the rubble again on Sunday for the remaining victims, but the process of removal will likely come on Monday.

"The grim prospect of spending Christmas Day going through the rubble is pretty devastating for our people, and I'm pretty sure the fire department, as well," Folz said.

"There is nothing left" of the cottage, he added.

Police won't be identifying the victims until postmortem examinations have been completed. Next of kin have been notified.

Police have not confirmed the victims' identities but say two people and two family pets were found dead at the scene. Two other family members remain unaccounted for but are also presumed dead. (Postmedia Network)