TCH pleads guilty to fire code violation at building where 4 seniors died

Toronto Community Housing has pleaded guilty to failing to implement an approved fire safety plan at 1315 Neilson Rd., where a fire claimed the lives of four elderly residents on Feb. 5, 2016.

At least 1 resident says she doesn't feel safe after the February 2016 fire, which was deemed arson

Firefighters battled thick smoke as they rescued more than 12 seniors from a Toronto Community Housing building on February 5, 2016. (CBC)

Toronto Community Housing has pleaded guilty to failing to implement an approved fire safety plan at 1315 Neilson Rd., where a fire claimed the lives of four elderly residents on Feb. 5, 2016.

TCH will pay a fine of $100,000 for the offence, the maximum fine allowable. 

During the investigation, Toronto fire officials said two polyurethane chairs burst into flames in the fifth floor hallway, creating toxic smoke.

"The fuel for the fire that resulted in this loss of life were the chairs that were placed in that alcove," said Toronto Deputy Fire Chief Jim Jessop. 

3 seniors died of smoke inhalation

Charles and Hyacinth Roberts, a married couple, and 86-year-old Azeema Safraj were identified as victims of the fire. All three died of smoke inhalation and a fourth resident, who was not identified, died in the days after the blaze. Fifteen other people were injured. 
Toronto Deputy Fire Chief Jim Jessop spoke to reporters in February 2016, noting the outcome of the fire would have been different had more sprinklers been installed in the building. He noted, however, that the building was built to code. (CBC)

TCH CEO Kevin Marshman released a statement sending his condolences to the families of the victims.

"The fire safety plan for 1315 Neilson Rd. is now fully implemented to the satisfaction of Toronto Fire Services," Marshman said.

"Toronto Community Housing pleaded guilty to one charge, a regulatory offence for not completely implementing the approved fire safety plan." 

According to Jessop, TCH faced three charges: one for allowing an accumulation of combustible materials, another for failing to train their staff and a third for failing to implement the approved fire safety plan. The first two charges were withdrawn because they are included in a properly functioning plan.

Resident still doesn't feel safe

At least one resident say she is glad that the TCH admitted its error but she still doesn't feel safe. 
Francine Vandevelden a TCH resident who was one of 15 people treated for injuries after the fire, says: 'I don't trust.' She still doesn't feel safe in the building. (CBC)

"It's good that they find out their mistake," said Francine Vandevelden  a TCH resident who was one of 15 people treated for injuries after the fire.

Vandevelde said nearly every week a fire alarm goes off in the building.

"I don't trust," she said. "We are old people here. Most of the people here can hardly move. How can you say this place is safe?" 

Vandevelde said she was in the washroom when the fire alarm went off on that day. She walked out of the washroom, then opened the hallway door to see if she could leave. 

"There was black smoke already there," she said. "I closed right away the door. And I said: 'Oh my god, what am I going to do?' " 
TCH resident Francine Vandevelden shows a CBC reporter which window screen she kicked out so she could breathe during the fire. (CBC)

She kicked out the screen of a small window and put her head outside so she could breathe. Two firefighters knocked on her door. They came in, told her to stay back, then broke a larger window. A fire ladder was moved into place and they took her down to a stretcher and to an ambulance. She stayed in hospital overnight.

"In my mind, I thought, 'Thank you, god, that I did not suffocate.'" 

Rose Magdaong, another TCH resident in the building, said one of the victims was her neighbour.  Magdaong was also taken down from the building on a fire ladder. She said she has bad memories from that day and was saddened to learn that people died.

"I got trauma, and nervous, you know, I am very nervous."

TCH resident Rose Magdaong says she has 'trauma' after the fire. (CBC)

Coun. Neethan Shan, who represents Ward 42 and who attended Thursday's court proceedings, said the tragedy has taken a huge toll on the apartment's residents.

"I am not going to suggest in any way that $100,000 will bring any comfort to the families," Shan said. "At the end of the day, the maximum fine ... was achieved today."

Jessop said any change to the maximum would have to go through the provincial government.

Fire was intentionally set

In January, family members of the victims learned the fire was arson.

"The cause of this fatal fire has been classified as intentional," read a statement released by the city.

At the time, TCH said it was co-operating with the investigation, and were "shocked and deeply saddened" to learn the fire was set deliberately. That investigation is ongoing. 
Fire crews respond to a deadly fire at a seniors' building in Toronto on Feb 5, 2016. (CBC)

"This terrible fire is a grim reminder that violations of the fire code can pose serious risks and result in tragic consequences," Jessop said in a city news release.

"Toronto Fire Services is committed to ensuring appropriate measures are taken by property owners to achieve both compliance and fire safety."

Fire officials also found the building lacked a modern sprinkler system, but since it was built prior to 2007, sprinklers weren't yet required to be installed in every room and hallway, according to Jessop.

The building had been last inspected in 2013. 

After the deadly blaze, Toronto Fire created a task force to inspect annually all 200 TCH buildings, including 69 seniors residences, to ensure they are up to code. They also planned to retrain staff and residents in fire safety.

Jessop said when violations are found, the fire department will use all enforcement mechanisms available to achieve compliance and to deter to those not following the rules.

With files from Nick Boisvert