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UPDATE: No smoke alarms in deadly fire

Cause of fire may not be known for weeks

A memorial sits outside the house at 116 Centre Street North in memory of the four people who died in the house fire on Jan. 8. (Photo by Joel Wittnebel)

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

After further investigation, it’s been determined that there were in fact no working smoke alarms inside the house at 116 Centre Street North when it went up in flames on Jan. 8, leading to the deaths of four people, two of them young children.

The blaze erupted around 8 a.m. in Oshawa’s downtown, and lead to the deaths of 36-year-old Lindsay Bonchek, and her two children, nine-year-old Maddie, and four-year-old Jackson. 50-year-old Steven Macdonald saved his pregnant daughter from the fire, but when he rushed back into the burning building to try and save others. He never made it back out.

Speaking outside the charred ruins of the home, Oshawa Fire Chief Derrick Clark, and Rick Derstroff, the fire investigations supervisor with the Ontario Fire Marshall, provided a somber and emotional update to what they’d uncovered in the days since the blaze.

Most troubling, and frustrating for the fire prevention officers, was the lack of working smoke alarms in the home.

“That is a very frustrating situation for all of us involved in this because this is a preventable tragedy that shouldn’t happen, not in today’s day and age with the technology that we have, with the safety systems we have in place, and the fire services that we have,” Derstroff said. “I want to stress the importance of fire safety and the importance for the occupants, tenants, landlords to take fire safety seriously. We’re having far too many deaths and fatalities and it shouldn’t happen.”

Witnesses of the fire reported that the flames quickly consumed the lower floors of the house as people began fleeing the home. Investigators have determined that the fire originated on the main floor of the building in the kitchen, however the direct cause of the fire has yet to be determined.

“I saw a flash of orange in the back door window as well as the northwest windows, not even 10 seconds later the door flies open and people are coming running out yelling ‘fire’ and ‘get out’,” says resident Laura Green, whose backyard abuts the lot of 116 Centre Street. She says she was standing on her back porch when the fire started. Green says she heard, and even saw, some kind of explosion take place ahead of the blaze.

“I heard the explosion, I saw the house shake,” she says. “It shook enough that snow fell off the roof of it.”

Derstroff  says there could be a number of things that could have caused witnesses to report some kind of explosion.

“There could be breaking glass, a fire makes lots of noise, it’s a very violent production, and we also have some aerosol containers which we found,” he said.

Green says she watched Macdonald, a man she’d met several times, rush out of the home, before running back into the flames two separate times. It appeared he was trying to put out the flames that were nearly two to three feet high, before vanishing into the house.

“It’s quickly growing even though he’s attempting to do something,” she says. “He disappears into and around the flames and comes back out with his daughter.”

At that point, Green says Macdonald didn’t appear to hesitate when he turned around and rushed back into the house.

“He doesn’t even stall for a second, he just went right back in,” she recalls. “He had to run through a wall of flames. I’d be looking at it going, ‘oh my God I can’t get through that,’ and the man doesn’t basically even bat an eye to go through it.”

Green then moved to bring over some clothes and jackets for those standing in the frigid temperatures. It was later that she learned Macdonald had never come back out of the house.

“It’s an all around tragedy, and it’s just a shame, nobody had to lose their lives,” she says.

At this point, Derstroff said it is too early to determine whether charges will be filed due to the lack of smoke alarms.

While becoming visibly upset, he took the opportunity to stress the importance of early detection in the event of a fire.

“The fire service can respond as quickly as possible, they can have the best equipment, the best man power, a very dedicated fire prevention staff to educate people, but if you don’t have early warning, early detection of a fire, you’re in a bad situation and the fire service won’t be in a position to save you,” he said. “When the fire’s already raging, it’s too late, because the smoke will get you, the heat can get you, or the fire can get you, so the point is to have the early detection available so that you can get out and stay out.”

According to Clark, the investigation into the cause of the fire is ongoing with the Fire Marshal, and could take several weeks to complete.

He also notes that as part of the fire services operation, a review will be done of the incident to see whether there can be any improvements in how fire services responded.

“It’s part of every operation issue that we run into, we look at after the fact, lessons learned type things,” he says. “We’ll definitely be looking into all the actions.”

The same was said by Peter Dyson, the interim president of the local firefighters union.

“Our goal is to work collaboratively with the corporation of the City of Oshawa to ensure public and firefighter safety in all areas of the city and downtown core,” he said. “We as an association have access to technological resources through the IAFF and we are examining the call as we speak. I can say that.”

Dyson also took the opportunity to share the union’s condolence and thoughts for all those impacted.

“Our thoughts are with the affected families in this tragedy,” he said.  “Our thoughts are also with all the first responders that responded, our members and the police and fire and everything that they’re dealing with after this call.”