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Firefighters recall fatal retirement home blaze


MIDHURST - Glenn Higgins will never forget the night shift that ended with a fire at the Muskoka Heights Retirement Residence on Jan. 19, 2009.

The Orillia fire captain took command of the scene early in the cold, snowy morning, rescued the second person to be brought out of the building, helped pull another resident, whom he recognized, onto the porch and then set up triage in the driveway before helping direct further firefighting efforts.

It all happened after another call earlier in the night at Trillium Manor that required evacuation.

On Tuesday, the second day of an inquest into the fire that killed four residents, coroner's counsel Bhavna Bhangu suggested it must have been a difficult situation, to which Higgins quietly responded, "Yeah."

Higgins and Orillia volunteer firefighter Robert Whyte made their way into the east entrance of the Old Muskoka Road facility through thick, black smoke and found Genneth Dyment, 93, in her room. Dyment, Vera Blain, Hugh Fleming and Robert McLean died as a result of the fire. Of the 21 residents in the home, 11 got out on their own and 10 were rescued.

Due to the heat and smoke, the firefighters were crawling on their hands and knees with zero visibility.

"We had to move her (Dyment) unconventionally out the door, basically holding her torso and shoulders and sliding her towards the door," Higgins recalled. "There was no visibility. We took her onto the porch and turned her over to firefighters that were on the deck.

"I'm about to head back in and there's another victim (being brought) out by two firefighters. I'm (standing) in the threshold. I assist them and I grab the individual by the torso. I take him out onto the porch. I take my mask off and I confirm that I know him. I know the resident. "

He was semi-conscious and soot-covered and struggling to breathe."

When Higgins and Whyte re-entered the building, their air-tank alarms went off, so they turned back and exited the building.

Higgins took command of the scene when he arrived at 6:10 a.m., five minutes after the call came in.

After about nine minutes as commanding officer, Higgins relinquished command to Orillia Fire Chief Ralph Dominelli, who heard the call on the radio on his way to the gym.

For hours, Dominelli directed the scene in minus-11 C temperatures in his street clothes without socks, gloves, a hat or scarf, and wearing a light suede jacket.

For the second consecutive day, Dominelli was on the stand at the inquest being held at the Simcoe County Administration Centre in Midhurst. He was questioned by four persons of standing in the inquest. Also, the five jurors were also welcome to question the chief.

One juror asked where the fire started.

Dominelli said it started in the medical room in the original part of the building on the north end.

Asked by the juror how there was so much damaged in fire department photos when it seemed to start small, Dominelli said, "Fire travels - it can go anywhere."

Dominelli added the old part of the building was framed in wood and built in the 1940s with no fire-prevention material between floors.

Following the afternoon break, Higgins was questioned until the end of the day. Jury members, Muskoka Heights owner Dean Rushlow and Graham Webb, lawyer for the Blain and McLean families, did not question Higgins.

Under questioning by Norm Feaver, a lawyer representing the Office of the Fire Marshal, Dominelli showed on Bristol board the home's floor plan showing where the 10 victims were located. Only the four who died were identified to protect the privacy of the other residents.

The first person rescued from the home was Blain, 90, who was discovered in Room 3, which was located on the north side of the building, closest to where the fire started.

The second person rescued from the home was Dyment. She was located in Room 1, which faced east, immediately south of the entrance facing Old Muskoka Road.

Fleming, 86, and McLean, 90, were located in the room they shared, 6AB, which was at the back of the building on the first floor. They were the seventh and eighth people to be rescued.

Of the six residents who were rescued and survived, one was found in Room 2, north of the front entrance. Another was located in a room adjacent and to Dyment's. Two more survivors were located in the lounge, one was discovered in the north hallway and one was rescued from Room 25A on the second floor.

Five more Orillia firefighters involved in the operation will be witnesses when the inquest resumes on Wednesday.

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