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Family members speak out at retirement home inquest

Graham Webb, lawyer representing the families of Vera Blain and Robert McLean at the coroner's inquest concerning the 2009 fire at Muskoka Heights Retirement Home in Orillia, talks with reporters Monday. 

Graham Webb, lawyer representing the families of Vera Blain and Robert McLean at the coroner's inquest concerning the 2009 fire at Muskoka Heights Retirement Home in Orillia, talks with reporters Monday. GISELE WINTON SARVIS SPECIAL TO QMI

Wilma and Robert Braid looked after Robert McLean before his care became too much for the Orillia couple and they arranged for him to live at the Muskoka Heights Retirement Residence.

The 90-year-old man, who suffered from dementia, died Jan. 19, 2009, when fire burned the retirement home to the ground.

Three other seniors also died as a result of the fire.

An inquest into the four deaths and the implications for fire safety at seniors' homes started Monday at the Simcoe County Administration Centre in Midhurst. The inquest is expected to last six weeks.

Wilma Braid, McLean's niece, said she has lots of questions.

"It's been three years," she said. "We hope something good comes out of this and that recommendations don't take too long to be implemented."

Wilma, a 69-year-old Orillia resident, had hired lawyer Graham Webb of the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly. He is one of five people with standing at the coroner's inquest, meaning he can call and question witnesses.

Webb is also representing the Alzheimer Society of Ontario and the family of Vera Blain, who was 90 when she died after the same fire.

"The purpose (is) to prevent future deaths in similar circumstances. The families want to know why and how did this happen," Webb said during the lunch break Monday, adding details such as what led to the fire should come out as the inquest progresses.

The families are "forward-looking" and want to ensure what happened to their family members does not happen to others in the future.

Webb also served as counsel at a 1996 inquest, where the jury recommended automatic sprinklers be installed in all seniors' homes.

"That will be the same direction that everyone will be holding today," he said.

Also on Monday, the provincial government announced it is taking steps to license retirement homes. Starting this week, the Retirement Homes Regulatory Authority requires all retirement homes to apply for a licence. Protections for seniors will include staff training on fire prevention and safety. It will also include a residents' bill of rights posted in every home and the duty to protect residents from abuse and neglect. All licence applications must be submitted by July 3 and will come into effect no later than Jan. 1, 2014.

Braid said she has learned a lot in the past three years, and if she ever puts another loved one in a seniors' residence, she will ask more questions.

"Don't just go and look at the place," she advised. "You've got to look at a lot of things. I never thought to ask about sprinkler systems. You never think to ask if the place is equipped with fire doors."

Braid said others should also ask questions about care and safety.

Muskoka Heights Retirement Residence, which was built in the 1940s and underwent a number of renovations over the years, had fire doors, but it did not have a sprinkler system. It was not required to have a sprinkler system, as private seniors' residences built before 1998 did not and still do not require sprinkler systems by law.

Orillia Fire Chief Ralph Dominelli was the first witness called at the inquest Monday. He discussed in detail the events of the day of the fire, under questioning by the coroner's counsel Bhavna Bhangu, a lawyer from Barrie.

Fire doors in the building helped slow the spread of the fire and made rescuing residents in the area that was not already on fire much easier, she said, noting the purpose of closed fire doors is "to contain the fire in that area and not let it get to another area in the building."

Dominelli said when the alarm was tripped at about 6:05 a.m., the fire doors automatically closed. The first fire truck arrived at 6:10 a.m. and Dominelli arrived at 6:14 a.m. When he arrived on scene, he said thick, black smoke was coming out the front entrance facing Old Muskoka Road.

Taking command of the scene while still wearing his street clothes, Dominelli instructed a two-man team of firefighters to take a hose in through the front door and do search and rescue.

He then instructed firefighters Tom England and Glenn Higgins to help evacuate residents from the south door, where there was clear visibility. They were able to evacuate a man who was lying in his bed in Room No. 9 and get him to an ambulance.

On the day of the fire, there were 21 residents in the building and one staff. The lone staff member and 11 residents got out on their own and 10 residents were rescued. Two residents died the day of the fire and two died later in hospital.

"Our primary thing to do is rescue. We want to protect the public. (Firefighters) want to rescue people. They don't want anyone to perish in a fire," Dominelli said.

Dominelli praised his firefighters, who battled zero visibility, crawled on their hands and knees searching for victims in a toxic environment, found them and then dragged them out only to have to go back in and rescue more residents.

Victims were removed from three entrances at the east, south side and west sides of the building. By 6:51 a.m., 10 rescues had taken place, and by 7:08 a.m., it was recorded that all residents were accounted for.

At 7:36 a.m., Dominelli ordered all firefighters out of the building. The fire was spreading through the walls and floors.

Firefighters continued to battle the blaze from outside and it was not fully extinguished until 7 p.m.

"This building was an older structure built in the 1940s with several renovations. The fire was hard to put out," Dominelli said.

Dominelli will continue his witness testimony Tuesday morning.

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