Plagued by false alarms, highrise residents ignored fire

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As fire alarms rang out at Hay River's highrise on the afternoon of March 15, many residents paid little, if any, attention.

For years, the 17-story building has been dogged by an alarm system that is often either broken or triggered unnecessarily – to the point where the people who lived there began ignoring it.

This time, though, it was a fire.

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Seven residents, in interviews with Hay River community radio station CKHR, admitted they had disregarded the alarms and only left the building once they looked outside – where emergency crews and people taking photos of the developing fire had gathered.

Alarms at the highrise are reported to be at least a monthly occurrence. Rarely have they signified an actual emergency.

Faced with a real fire, the indifference of residents worn down by false alarms represents a potentially life-endangering development that will trouble authorities charged with overseeing building safety.

"The building’s alarm always goes off. It’s always false alarms," said Patrick McNeely. "I don’t know why, but it does, so we just didn’t think anything of it. It went off about two more times, then my brother looked outside and there was smoke, the building was on fire.

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"We just grabbed the animals and hauled arse downstairs and that was it."

"We all ignored [the alarm], because it always goes off," said William Sagriff. "[This time] sure enough, there’s a fire."

"We couldn’t get the alarm to go off – we were waving a blanket and whatever, we didn’t smell any smoke," said Adam Desrosiers. "Then we looked out of the window and there were fire trucks everywhere."

One official with knowledge of emergency crews' response said firefighters had to go door to door through the building, urging people to leave, in part because response to the fire alarms had been so lackadaisical. The official requested anonymity as they were not authorized to discuss details of the response.

No serious injuries were reported, though some people were treated for smoke inhalation.

Building issues

The building remains off-limits and residents were told on Saturday they will be unable to return until Wednesday at the absolute earliest.

"I can't give you an accurate timeline right now as hazards need to be assessed before we can safely let anyone back into the building," Travis Wright, the South Slave's assistant fire marshal, told CKHR.

"It will not be before Wednesday and it may be longer."

An assessment of the building was taking place on Saturday.

The owner of the building, Harry Satdeo, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Satdeo's company has been urged several times by territorial authorities to fix a range of issues related to the highrise, which is the NWT's tallest residential building.

Unsafe balconies, which have been off-limits to residents since 2014, form one such issue. In 2014, a broken fire alarm system saw the NWT's fire marshal order Satdeo to carry out renovations. His company was fined $10,000 in 2017 for failing to comply with a separate slate of mandated renovation work.

A fire dies down inside Hay River's highrise on March 15, 2019
A fire dies down inside Hay River's highrise on March 15, 2019. Adam Aylward/CKHR

Satdeo has previously said the town's fire department was concerned about fire safety at the building as early as 2002, when he bought the complex.

Territorial authorities have in the past contemplated ordering that the highrise be shut down, in the hope of effectively forcing Satdeo to either complete the required updates or sell the property to someone who will.

Cabin Radio understands Satdeo is seen as having done just enough to avoid that course of action being taken, to date. He has at times been described by the fire marshal's office as "cooperative" – with some steps taken to improve the building, including improvements to fire alarm systems.

Alarms 'a normal occurrence'

No matter the floor on which they lived, the response of residents to Friday's fire alarm bore similarities.

A man named Kyle, whose apartment is on the seventh floor, said: "The alarms went off but that's a normal occurrence at the highrise, they're always pulling the alarms for no reason. My girlfriend silenced the fire alarm a few times and then I silenced the fire alarm because it just kept going off.

"That's when we looked outside and we saw some people taking photographs at the fire hall, and we started seeing smoke and realized that it wasn't just somebody pulling the fire alarm – it was real."

A man living on the fourth floor said: "Someone pounded on my door and I just-about told them to go away because I was watching a good show."

Haleigh Auger, who lives on the sixth floor, said: "I was just leaving the building when it started. I didn't think anything of it, I thought somebody was playing with the fire alarms and I was just about to go to the gym."

"Then my friend told me the building was on fire so I ran back and grabbed my dog."

Though eventually all residents were evacuated, the initial response on Friday resembled the entirely inadequate outcome of a fire drill conducted in the same building in September 2014 – in which barely a handful of the 125 or so residents ended up vacating the premises.

For some residents, Friday's fire underscored a broader issue with the building and the availability of rental accommodation in the town.

"Look at that building, it shouldn’t even be standing," said Sagriff, who lives on the 12th floor.

"It’s outdated. I don’t want to complain because it’s the only place to rent in town, but what the hell does this community do for its people?

"They tear down all the other housing, they don’t build nothing, and they leave this old thing up that should be already condemned and torn down."

"I'm not really surprised that this happened," said Auger.

Cause under investigation

Multiple residents and a member of building management have alluded to a specific incident at an 11th-floor apartment which, they believe, suggests arson may have been the cause of Friday's fire.

A tenant is reported, in several accounts from those inside the highrise at the time, to have heard their front door open and close, then discovered their closet on fire.

However, that account has not been confirmed by any member of the emergency services or government official. The cause remains undetermined and under investigation.

It is not clear if police, who have yet to comment on the fire, are searching for anyone in connection with the incident.

A request for comment from RCMP was returned with a note stating the police media relations officer is away, and requests will only be answered from 8am till 4pm on weekdays.

Asked for an update on the investigation, assistant fire marshal Wright said: "We're still in the preliminary stages.

"Our priority has been public safety to this point and there is nothing to report from the investigation at this time."

With files from Adam Aylward, Mark Lundbek, CKHR, and Sarah Pruys