Toronto

Portions of York Memorial Collegiate Institute to be excavated after 6-alarm fire tears through building

Heavy excavation equipment will make its way to York Memorial Collegiate Institute Wednesday morning so that fire crews can look deep inside the historic building for anyhing that may still be smouldering more than 24 hours after fire first broke out there.

Exact amount of damage still not clear, investigators to assess what caused flames to break out again

A collapsed exterior wall is seen here as firefighters battle a fire at York Memorial Collegiate Institute in Toronto. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

Heavy excavation equipment will make its way to York Memorial Collegiate Institute Wednesday morning so that fire crews can look deep inside the historic building for anything that may still be smouldering more than 24 hours after fire first broke out there.

In an update to reporters Tuesday evening, Toronto Fire Chief Matthew Pegg said crews had made "very significant progress" fighting the blaze but that the scene remained an active one.

A limited crew will remain at the building overnight ahead of the arrival of the heavy equipment, he said, thanking all those who worked to battle the fire so far.

"It's been a tough day," said Pegg. "Our crews are really tired but we're making good headway." 

Several schools in the area of Eglinton Avenue West and Keele Street were evacuated Tuesday as thick black smoke continued to pour from the school. The building was on fire for the second time in two days after a blaze broke out in the early hours of Tuesday morning — just a few hours after a fire at the school was believed to be under control.

The fire, which was called in by fire crews at about 3:30 a.m. on Tuesday, was upgraded to a six-alarm fire as of 10:15 a.m. The number of alarms indicates how many trucks and firefighters have been deployed to the scene.

York Memorial principal Donna Drummond teared up as she watched firefighters battle a six-alarm blaze at the school. 1:00

George Harvey Collegiate Institute, Silverthorn Community School and Keelesdale Junior Public School had been evacuated Tuesday due to smoke. Pegg announced on Twitter Tuesday evening that "it is now safe for anyone evacuated or displaced as a result of the Eglinton fire to reoccupy their homes / businesses."

The Toronto District School Board says classes at George Harvey along with York Memorial will be cancelled Wednesday and that air quality tests will continue through the night for the other schools, with the status of classes expected to be decided Wednesdsay morning.

A section of Eglinton Avenue West was also closed earlier in the morning. No injuries have been reported. 

First call came Monday afternoon

Fire crews were first called to the 90-year-old school on Monday afternoon, and the fire was believed to be in hand within a few hours. 

Toronto Fire Capt. David Eckerman says crews called a second alarm early Tuesday morning after doing heat checks in the school. 

Smoke pours from the roof of York Memorial Collegiate Institute Tuesday morning. The Toronto police are evacuating houses along one section of Eglinton Avenue. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC)

"Even yesterday it was understood that fire was in the walls and ceilings. When its hidden like that and when you have an old structure like this, it's difficult to get in front of the fire," Eckerman said. 

He said the damage so far is "substantial," adding that there have been some ceiling collapses on the first floor. Some bricks have also fallen from the school. 

At 2:45 p.m. Tuesday, Chief Pegg said there was no estimate as to when the fire might be extinguished.

Speaking on Tuesday evening, Pegg said he couldn't explain what might have led to the second fire breaking out, adding crews on the scene overnight deemed it to be "separate and distinct" from the first.

The Office of the Ontario Fire Marshall will be investigating further, he said, and will also be looking to put an estimate on the amount of damage.

Earlier Tuesday, Toronto Mayor John Tory visited the school to survey the damage and offer support to fire crews. 

The mayor sought to assure the public that the cause of the fires, which have yet to be determined, will be thoroughly investigated by Ontario's Office of the Fire Marshal with help from Toronto police. 

"No stone will be left unturned so we can understand what happened here," Tory said. "But before that, I think it's very important that people should not... jump to any conclusions."

Principal 'heartbroken' 

York Memorial principal Donna Drummond said on Tuesday morning she was "devastated" and "heartbroken" to see the school go up in flames. 

"The school has a long standing history in this area, in this community," she said. "It's a wonderful school, with wonderful staff and students." 

Firefighters couldn't get inside the school to battle the flames, so instead fired water onto the fire from above. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

York Memorial Collegiate Institute officially turned 90 yesterday — with its cornerstone laid on May 6, 1929. Anniversary celebrations had been planned for the end of the month. 

Drummond said the school is full of historically significant architecture, including an auditorium with stained glass windows and pillars. 

"It's a school named after those who sacrificed their lives for us, and the auditorium was a reflection of that," she said. 

Over the course of the morning, the fire has been upgraded from a four to six alarm fire. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

Students and staff had been asked to go to George Harvey Collegiate Institute, located about ten minutes on foot from York CI, on Tuesday morning. 

Now that George Harvey CI is being evacuated, parents are asked to pick up their children if possible. If not, all students and staff will go to Oakwood Collegiate Institute for the day. 

Some TTC routes are also diverting due to the fire. 

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