Toronto·Video

Toronto's music community rallies to support beloved pianist after fire destroys his home

As his fingers fly across the piano keys, playing as he's done for almost 50 years, Richard Herriott almost forgets that three days ago, he lost virtually everything.

'I just feel so fortunate that I can still be here to sort of appreciate it,' says Richard Herriott

Earlier this week, Richard Herriott's home was destroyed when a three-alarm fire tore through a building in Parkdale, leaving him homeless along with three other people. (John Lesavage/CBC)

As his fingers fly across the piano keys, playing as he's done for almost 50 years, Richard Herriott almost forgets that three days ago, he lost virtually everything.

"As soon as I start to play, I feel like I'm at home, you know. This is where I belong," the prominent musician and composer told CBC News Friday.

"It's a safe place for me," he said as he played the piano in the Glenn Gould Studio at the Canadian Broadcasting Centre.

Richard Herriott, a pianist with the National Ballet of Canada and Canada's National Ballet School, has been playing for nearly 50 years.  0:54

Earlier this week, Herriott's home was destroyed when a three-alarm fire tore through a building in Parkdale, leaving four people, including Herriott, homeless. Crews were called to the scene just west of Dufferin Street shortly after 5 a.m. Tuesday for reports of smoke pouring out of the rear of the building. 

Herriott, a pianist with the National Ballet of Canada and Canada's National Ballet School, was fortunate to escape with his life. 

"I was told by the fireman that I was lucky to get out when I did because if I waited even a minute or two later, the place was basically engulfed in flames," he said. 

"I wouldn't be sitting here right now."

But his flat, admittedly messy, stored countless manuscripts, scores and treasures he'd collected over the years. They were gone in almost an instant. 

"That's the thing that's so cruel," he said. "Fire is just so... unforgiving."

'It could happen to literally any one of us'

Some items were replaceable. Others, sentimental and virtually impossible to get back. "I'm lucky that there's a lot of stuff up here," he said, pointing to his head.

He'll have to recreate some of the compositions that exist now only in his memory. 

Just hours after the blaze, Jennie Worden, executive director of Orchestra Toronto, woke to a text message from a colleague telling her Herriott's apartment had burned down. 

Fire crews were called to the scene just west of Dufferin Street shortly after 5 a.m. Tuesday for reports of smoke pouring out of the rear of Herriot's building.  (Chris Langenzarde/CBC)

Immediately, she and others launched into action, starting a GoFundMe campaign to help him rebuild.

In part, it was because Herriott is part of the orchestra family, she said. But it was also partly because so many in the arts "live on the edge of precarity," Worden said.

"We are all sort of one disaster away from outright disaster," she said. "There's this sense of this need to make sure that we're all taken care of because we know that it could happen to literally any one of us."

Flutist Jaye Marsh agrees.

"I was relieved he was alive and I know that's really what's most important, " she said. "But I also know as a musician he's lost all his instruments, he's lost all that work that ... he's done that might not be saved on a drive somewhere."

'Just enormously grateful'

What she didn't expect was how quickly she'd get close to her fundraising goal. Within days, thousands of dollars had poured in for Herriott from students, people in the music community and even strangers. So far, more than $15,000 has come in.

For Herriott, while the fire destroyed almost all of his possessions, it's given him something too: the realization of just how much he means to the community. 

"I'm just enormously grateful. I don't know what to say, really," he said of the support. Ever since the blaze, he says, his phone has been buzzing every few minutes with messages of care. 

Jennie Worden, left, director of Orchestra Toronto, and flutist Jaye Marsh launched into action to support Herriott. (John Lesavage/CBC)

"It's marvellous to have that," he said.

For now, Herriott is living with a friend in Parkdale, unsure exactly what comes next. He'll be looking for a place to stay and plans to use the money raised to rebuild his life.

"I just feel so fortunate that I can still be here to sort of appreciate it," he said.

"That's what's getting me through everything."

With files from Kelda Yuen