On the outside, the scars are still visible on Brandon’s Massey Manor, but on the inside new life is slowly rising from the ashes.
Dozens of boarded-up windows, construction fencing around the parking lot and an empty playground are all reminders of the tragedy that struck the city’s downtown on May 19, 2018.
“It was just an absolute disaster, that’s all there is to it,” said Glen Kruck, general manager of the Community Health and Housing Association of Westman.
His organization runs the affordable housing complex that about 150 people called home until it was badly damaged in a fire that destroyed three other buildings in the city’s core last May.
‘They were devastated’
Lisa Ramsay, a volunteer with Brandon’s Bear Clan patrol group, was among the first to meet the evacuees.
“[I] didn’t know how we could help but [we] just went downtown and saw people walking around in a state of trauma, in shock,” she recalled. “Wandering and not knowing where they were going or what they were doing.
“Clearly they were devastated.”
Ramsay says she and other members of the group did their best to help the evacuees in the hours after the fire, letting them use their cellphones, taking them somewhere safe or even just giving them a hug.
She feels the downtown became quieter after the families living in the building left.
“There isn’t a patrol we don’t think about that when we’re walking by and remembering that day,” she said. “It changes things.”
Major water damage
Most of the damage at Massey Manor, which was built in 1913 and operated as a warehouse for decades before being converted to apartments in 2012, wasn’t caused by fire, according to Kruck, but by water. Millions of litres of water were poured onto the roof in an effort to contain the fire.
All of that water flowed flowed through the building, heavily damaging suites on every floor. With no ventilation in the building following the fire, mould quickly set in, compounding the problem.
In the year since the fire, crews have gutted the building. Flooring, cabinets, drywall, furnishings and everything in between has been thrown out. Residents were allowed in briefly in the days after the fire to gather any personal belongings they could carry out. Installation of a new roof has also been completed.
“We spent so many years getting this building up and running and then, in one day, for it to be gone was really quite a shock,” said Kruck, who took CBC on tour of the building on Tuesday. “Again, there was no loss of the life and that is the most important part.
“It was a very traumatic time, for sure,” he added.
The massive task now, Kruck says, is to rebuild all 59 suites from the ground up. Construction got underway about six weeks ago.
“The whole building is going to be totally reborn,” he said. “The construction firm is doing a great job. They’re sourcing all of the materials locally.”
Jeff Pichlyk, site superintendent with Backstael Construction, the company charged with rebuilding the suites, told CBC that crews have started on the fourth floor, which sustained the most damage, and will work their way down to the basement over the next several months.
“The third floor is the majority of our work,” he said, while showing CBC around the building. “When we started there was no floor, it was completely ripped out.”
Crews have already installed new fire sprinklers, laid down subfloors and installed insulation in part of the building.
The fire that left the historic building damaged started across the street at Christie’s Office Plus — an office supply store. Firefighters arrived at the scene within minutes of the 911 call, but it was already fully involved.
The heat and intensity of the fire blew out of the windows on the north side of Massey Manor, and flying embers caused a fire on the roof.
Jadelyn Keen, who had lived in Massey Manor with her daughter for nearly four years, was in her apartment when the fire broke out.
“It was instant panic,” said Keen, whose daughter wasn’t home at the time. “I honestly didn’t know what to think. I just started to cry.”
Keen says she was about to lie down for a nap when the fire alarm started ringing and she noticed thick, black smoke coming from across the street.
“Everybody was running towards the vet clinic down on Pacific [Avenue],” she added. “I just sat there and cried and cried until my grandma came to pick me up.”
Keen, who was pregnant at the time, said she and her daughter stayed in a hotel for about two weeks until they found a house to live in.
Sense of community
The Bear Clan organized a donation drive for the evacuees and had to stop accepting donations within hours because so much stuff had been accumulated.
“The community responded exactly the way that one would hope the community would respond in a situation like that,” said Farther Don Bernhardt, who opened up Brandon’s St. Matthew’s Cathedral for the drive. “People were incredibly generous.”
“It just reinforced that this is what this community is all about,” he added.
But while Keen says she’s thankful for the donations and ongoing support from the community in helping her family, it’s the things she can’t replace — the keepsakes — that cause her pain.
“It’s still very hard,” she said. “I’m still grieving the loss of everything we lost,” including irreplaceable memories and keepsakes of a son she lost seven years ago.
“The firefighters were thankfully able to save his urn and a few sentimental things right after it happened,” she said. “I’m very, very thankful that I have those very few things, but it’s still hard that I pretty much lost everything of his.”
Keen says the building had a sense of community, which was lost when everyone was split up after the fire. With her family now settled into their new home, she isn’t planning to move back into the building.
Scores of firefighters battled blaze
The embers that started Massey Manor on fire would also lead to two other fires that destroyed a small strip mall next door that contained several businesses, including the Brandon Boxing Club, and a beer vendor and vacant nightclub more than a block away.
More than 60 firefighters fought the fires, Brent Dane, fire chief at the time of the disaster, told a City of Brandon council meeting last May, including those from Brandon, Souris, Wawanesa and CFB Shilo, along with help from Manitoba Hydro and the Office of the Fire Commissioner.
Firefighters remained at the scene for more than two days afterward putting out hotspots, using more than 36 million litres of water in the process.
In one afternoon, three buildings were destroyed, causing an estimated $25 million in damage. Brandon police believe the fire may have started in some grass behind Christie’s Office Plus. Police put out a call for witnesses last fall, but so far no charges have been laid.
Since the fires, the businesses have relocated and their former sites are ready for new builds. Massey Manor was the only building left standing following the fires.
Back inside Massey Manor, Kruck hopes the building can welcome families come fall.
“Hopefully we’ll be back in at the end of October or early November,” Kruck said, adding that the plan is to develop a new selection process to repopulate the building once it’s ready.
“There are always individuals who need affordable [housing],” he said. “That’s the one thing this building had, was very affordable rents.
“That is very much missing and that will be a welcome addition to the market,” he said.
Ramsay is also looking forward to the day Massey Manor reopens.
“We’re going to have families back in there again and we look forward to that day,” Ramsay said. “They didn’t just lose their stuff, they lost each other.”
“To get Massey back up and running … would mean a huge benefit to the people in the margins of this community,” said Bernhardt.