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Hay River highrise residents scramble to retrieve belongings

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

Displaced occupants of the Hay River highrise are racing to retrieve their possessions on Wednesday and Thursday as they are allowed, briefly, to return home and salvage important items.

A notice distributed to residents says occupants of each suite will have at most 15 minutes, in a carefully supervised operation, to re-enter the building and grab the things they most urgently need.

Temporary access to the building – which sustained fire, smoke, and water damage in an 11th-floor fire last Friday – was due to begin at 9am on Wednesday, when occupants of the 17th floor would be allowed in.

The operation was due to proceed down the building, floor by floor, concluding on Thursday at 4:30pm with first-floor residents.



Friday is being held in reserve in case the operation overruns and an additional day is required.

Residents have been warned that returning to their homes permanently will “not be a short-term operation,” in the words of NWT fire marshal Chucker Dewar earlier this week.

Water damage to fire separators, a broken alarm system, and the possibility of asbestos within the building – which now needs urgent renovation – will keep residents away from their units for weeks at the very least, more likely months.

Wally Schumann, the MLA for Hay River South, has stated he is unsure whether residents will ever be allowed to return home, given the building’s condition following the fire.



‘Pretty devastated’

The announcement, at a meeting on Tuesday, of the 15-minute window to return home led some residents to try to maximize their opportunity.

“The highrise victims are allowed to basically load up as much as they can within a 15-minute period,” resident Patrick McNeely posted to a Hay River Facebook group. “Are there any companies that can lend a flat push trolley that can fit in the dimensions of the highrise elevator?”

Carts were to be provided, organizers said. “Whatever you can carry is what you can take out,” was the limit advised by one official, who discouraged the retrieval of large items such as furniture. “We’ll have a stage two where we get to bigger things later.”

Glasses, prescription medicines, and identification documents were given as examples of things that should be prioritized.

Officials had encouraged residents to make a list of their most important possessions and plan in advance, so as to make the most use of their 15 minutes.

Tenants were to be issued safety equipment – latex gloves and a face mask – in order to access their homes, and were instructed to wear them at all times while in the building. A maximum of two people per apartment will be allowed to enter, increased from one person based on residents’ feedback earlier in the week.

RCMP are to provide security during the retrieval operation, while counsellors will also be available for tenants who require them.

The 11th floor, which was the scene of the fire, remains inaccessible and residents on that floor are not allowed to return to their units to retrieve belongings.



“We have been advised that some apartments are pretty devastated,” an official told residents on Tuesday, warning that those nearer to the fire would be in more a damaged state, particularly from water damage.

There is no update regarding the status of the fire marshal’s investigation, with RCMP, into the cause of Friday’s fire.

With files from Mark Lundbek, CKHR