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Fatal fire had help: INQUEST

Gisele Winton Sarvis, Special to QMI Agency

MIDHURST - There were no smoke alarms in any of the bedrooms at Muskoka Heights Retirement Residence where a fire claimed the lives of four elderly residents in 2009.

"There were heat detectors installed in every sleeping room. There were no smoke alarms in the bedrooms," said Christine Mak, who visited the scene shortly after the Jan. 19, 2009, fire and wrote an "autopsy" about the fire-safety equipment for the Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM).

The fire prevention engineer provided testimony Thursday at the Muskoka Heights inquest at the Simcoe County Administration Centre. The inquest is investigating ways to prevent future fires such as the deadly blaze that claimed four lives in Orillia.

Mak investigated a "burned" door that separated a main-floor lounge from a corridor the owner had added, under direction from the Orillia Fire Department.

None of the residents in the south addition beyond that door died in the fire.

The lack of fire doors in the original part of the building (built in 1914), where the fire originated, was among the violations under the Ontario Fire Code, said Mak.

To slow the spread of fire, there must be doors to close it in and safe corridors and exits for people to get out, Mak said Thursday.

At Muskoka Heights, flames were first seen in the medical room on the main floor of the old structure.

The single personal support worker on shift did not close the door to the medical room. The nurse's station in the same area did not have a door separating it from the hallway.

Firefighters testified there was "thick black smoke with zero visibility" in that hallway leading from the front door that was used by firefighters to evacuate residents.

The two women who perished after the fire were in rooms across the main hallway and on the same side as the nursing area.

The fire quickly spread through the walls and ceiling of the original structure, burning it from the inside out.

Two men who died the day of the fire slept in a small room in a "dead-end corridor," said Mak.

"There should have been another exit."

Self-closing bedroom doors were another way to create some fire protection, but they didn't have such doors.

Also, the personal support worker testified the door was open when she hollered to the two men, who both suffered from dementia, to get out.

Firefighters discovered the men on their beds in their rooms and pulled them out the front door through the burning hallway. Efforts to resuscitate them failed. They died of smoke inhalation. Autopsies discovered soot deep into their lung tissue.

Even if the men, one of whom used a walker, had gotten themselves out of bed and into the hallway, they wouldn't have been able to escape from the nearest exit as it was blocked with a heavy accumulation of snow and ice from the outside.

That blocked exit was another fire code violation, said Mak.

The issue of the smoke alarms comes down to the building classification issue lawyers have been debating about at length at this inquest.

The home was originally a nursing home, class B2. As such, it required heat detectors in every room. She said those were probably left over from that time.

Dean Rushlow purchased the building and started moving people in under a "retirement home" classification that in 2004 was a class C or residential. This required much less fire-safety equipment.

A fire at Meadowcroft Place Retirement Home in Mississauga in 1995 resulted in the deaths of eight people. An inquest into that fire resulted in a recommendation that changed the Ontario Building Code in 2007 to create a new "care occupancy" or B3.

This new class came with a list of fire-protection equipment and regulations concerning fire safety that put it between levels needed for regular residential and nursing home facilities.

The Meadowcroft inquest recommended sprinkler systems be mandatory in all seniors' homes.

It remains legal to operate an older, private care facility without sprinklers unless it is four stories or higher.

The inquest continues today and then will take a break for a week before resuming.

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