What took them so long?
3 died despite ‘textbook’ actions by firefighters
How jarring it must be to be a parent of one of those three dead teenagers and hear again and again at the inquest into their deaths that everything about the emergency response — from the 911 fire call-taker to the firefighters’ actions — went beautifully.
The inquest is probing the deaths of Benjamin Twiddy, Marilee Towie and Holly Harrison, respectively 19, 18 and 17, who perished April 29, 2012, in a Whitby, Ont., house fire.
The father of one young woman and mother of another were in court Monday.
Though the nearest fire station was only about 260 metres from the small 1½-storey house on Dundas Street West in the town east of Toronto, the young people were likely dead or dying before the first fire trucks even arrived on scene.
Unusually, the 911 fire department call-taker kept the phone line open throughout, as she tried to get more information for firefighters, with the result that the teens’ desperate screams were captured in the 911 recording that has now been played several times for presiding coroner Dr. David Evans and the five-member jury.
Far worse than the screams, however, is the silence that followed the cries for help.
There were no sounds of life from the three teens four minutes and 32 seconds after they first called for help that Monday morning.
It means they were likely dead or dying by the time the first trucks got there, almost five minutes after the call came in.
The last thing any of them — it was one of the girls, who were visiting Twiddy, who lived in an upstairs flat — appears to have said was, “Oh, I’m gonna die.”
Twiddy was, according to the lawyer for the three families, Aliza Karoly, one of those Toronto Hospital for Sick Children miracle kids — he was a multiple transplant recipient who beat the odds only to succumb to the fire.
Two deputy fire chiefs, Scott Siersma for Whitby and Steve Boyd for nearby Oshawa, variously described the department’s response times and performance as “very good, respectable times,” “textbook” and praised the fire dispatcher who seemed to have difficulty getting the correct address.
As Siersma put it once, “There’s nothing they could have done to alter the outcome of that fire … they did everything they could and they did everything properly.”
Yet the elephant in the room is surely that if firefighters so close to a blaze can’t respond in time to save any of the occupants, perhaps fire departments should switch their focus from fighting fires to preventing them.
The teens were overcome with shocking speed.
It was one of the young women who called 911, and as a visitor, she wasn’t sure of the street address.
But Twiddy quickly came on the line, and though fear tinged his voice, he was nonetheless controlled and gave the call-taker, who kept asking if the house was on Dundas West or East, clear directions: “It’s down by White Oaks (a well-known apartment complex locally),” he said, “on the same side as Timmie’s.”
Asked what was on fire, Twiddy said, “It’s a towel and it lit the stairs on fire.”
The stairs were the only available exit. “We can’t get out,” he said. The sound of one or another of the young women, crying was heard in the background. Twiddy told the call-taker, “OK, because we’re stuck in the house. It’s going pretty black.”
“Where are you stuck?” the dispatcher asked. “What part of the house?”
“We’re upstairs in the top floor,” Twiddy replied. “We opened all the windows and we’re stuck.”
(Though opening the windows is an instinctive reaction to get fresh air, the oxygen actually feeds the fire.)
Then, still calm, Twiddy said, “My door is on fire.”
In the background, the crying had turned into anguished screaming. Twiddy, still with his head about him, yelled to the young women, “Get down. Now. Now. Get over here! Now!” The screaming continued. The last thing Twiddy was heard saying, still calm, was, “Guys, guys …” He then said either “Is the fire out?” or “the fire’s out.” (Reporters weren’t given transcripts.) And then one of the young women cried, “Oh, I’m gonna die.”
The call-taker then began saying “Hello? Hello?” as she tried to raise one of the teenagers and reassure them by telling them “we got trucks coming.”
The three were found huddled together, below one of the windows.
But the trucks weren’t en route for more than three minutes, took more than a minute to travel the short distance. Though a couple of firefighters seemed ready to enter the house as soon as they got there, they were held back, with the result that the first firefighters didn’t go in for more than nine minutes.
Unusually, Durham Regional Police Const. Andrew Chmelowsky told the inquest last week, he got to the scene before the fire trucks. He testified that the fire response seemed slow to him.
In its second phase, the inquest will probe another fatal fire, in the town of East Gwillimbury, Ont., in which four people died.