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Inquest jury still deliberating


MIDHURST - The jury is still out.

The three-man, two-woman jury at the coroner's inquest into a fatal 2009 fire at Muskoka Heights Retirement Residence began deliberations Thursday after being presented with passionate pleas and 36 recommendations crafted co-operatively by five lawyers.

Jurors have the task of weighing the evidence of 29 witnesses and 96 exhibits presented over the past six weeks at the Simcoe County administration centre.

The inquest was called following the deaths of Vera Blain, Genneth Dyment, Robert McLean and Hugh Fleming as a result of the fire Jan. 19, 2009.

The two men died at the retirement home of smoke inhalation. The two women died later at Orillia Soldiers' Memorial Hospital.

Jurors could be back as early as Friday morning with their recommendations - which will impact the entire province - for improved safety for vulnerable seniors living in retirement homes.

"We speak for the dead to protect the living," presiding coroner Dirk Huyer said Wednesday. "Make your recommendations targeted, focused, clear and practical. Recommendations can have far-reaching effects. Many organizations and ministries of government may be recipients of the recommendations. The better they are understood, the higher the chances of getting them implemented."

Mandatory retrofitted sprinklers is the No. 1 recommendation requested by the Orillia Fire Department.

"Sprinklers work," said John Saunders, lawyer for the Orillia Fire Department and the City of Orillia.

"There is no evidence that says they do not work. There is no evidence of them failing. They go off when the temperature reaches a certain level and puts out the fire in that area and decreases smoke.

"Residents can get out and firefighters can do their work. It's a win-win," Saunders added.

Graham Webb, the lawyer representing the families of Blain and McLean and the Alzheimer's Society, said mandatory sprinkler systems are No. 1 on his list, too.

"A retirement home should never be a fire trap. Muskoka Heights was a fire trap," Webb said in his emotional appeal to the jurors, speaking personally about the four seniors who died.

There are more than 35,000 seniors living in retirement homes in Ontario and it's inconceivable to think there will never be another fire, he said.

"The (Ontario) Fire Code should be amended to require sprinklers without exception," Webb said.

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