What was supposed to be a relaxing study break turned out to be anything but for Taylor McDowall.
McDowall, Comm ’15, went online on the afternoon of Dec. 17, only to notice there were flames engulfing the construction site at 663 Princess St. the location of a new student housing development. Just a week prior, she and two friends had signed a lease for a unit in the building.
The site, owned by Kingston-based developer Patry Inc., had erupted into a mass fire, forcing dozens to evacuate their homes and businesses. The housing complex, called The Edge, was set to open on the northwest corner of Princess and Victoria Streets in September 2014.
It became a five-alarm fire within minutes. For about an hour, a worker was trapped on a crane above the blaze, unable to escape, before he was rescued by a military helicopter.
“I immediately called my roommates and let them know it was happening,” McDowall said. “I was seeing posts about the man stuck on the crane, and I obviously can’t even fathom how terrified he must have been.”
Fortunately, no life-threatening injuries resulted from the disaster.
“Although it’s obviously terrible that all these students have been shafted out of living arrangements, I don’t think we can really be that mad about it, just because we’re so happy that no one was [severely] hurt.”
Kingston Fire and Rescue (KFR) responded immediately with all available units, before requesting assistance from all off-duty firefighters, volunteer firefighters, other nearby fire departments and the Royal Canadian Air Force.
After realizing that the fire trucks’ ladders would not reach the 68-year-old crane operator, Adam Jastrezbski, KFR contacted the Canadian Forces Base in Trenton, Ontario, to execute an aerial rescue.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation. One hundred and twenty people were initially evacuated from their homes and 58 were displaced for longer than anticipated, as the blaze took longer than 24 hours to extinguish.
The fire may have been knocked down, but concerns about leased apartments at 663 Princess St. were then ignited.
McDowall praised Kingston’s emergency services’ handling of the disaster, but she thought the company with whom she’d signed her lease could have communicated more efficiently.
“Patry Inc. could have given us a little bit more concrete information earlier, because we were sort of in a state of limbo,” she said.
Patry Inc. didn’t respond to interview requests from the Journal.
Samantha Hazleton, another student leaser, has remained impressed with Patry Inc.’s communication during and since the crisis.
“I think they did keep us updated as much as they could, and had it not been the holidays, I think that they would’ve been even faster,” Hazleton, ArtSci ’15, said.
Students who had signed a lease at 663 Princess St. received an email shortly before 8 p.m. on Dec. 17 notifying them of the fire and thanking Kingston emergency services for their efforts. The email also stated that information regarding leases would be released following further evaluation of the situation.
This notification was followed by a second email on Jan. 3, which said that construction of 663 Princess St. could no longer be completed by September 2014, and Patry Inc. would be mailing reimbursement cheques on Jan. 6 for all deposits.
The email also included information on other Patry Inc. properties currently available for rent. The company has set aside a number of two to six bedroom units for students who signed leases at The Edge.
After receiving this information, Hazleton said she would definitely sign a lease with the developer again.
“It’s unfortunate, but we got our money back and there is still more than enough time to find something,” she said.
According to Jana Mills, acting senior review counsel at Queen’s Legal Aid, it’s most useful to reference the Frustration Contracts Act in instances like these.
Frustration of Contract applies in cases of tenancy when the subject matter of a contract is destroyed with its restoration expected to be long-term, Mills told the Journal via email.
In cases where this applies, parties are dismissed from their contract and those who made deposits should receive reimbursement.
Mills also explained that Frustration of Contract only holds when the event that caused destruction was “not caused by the parties and not provided for in the contract.”
According to Catherine Wright, AMS municipal affairs commissioner, students now tasked with signing another lease for living arrangements for the upcoming school year shouldn’t fear rental rivalry.
“It’s important to note that the University District currently has a surplus of rental housing — any feeling of pressure on the market is perceived, and created by the rush that students put on ourselves,” Wright told the Journal via email.
Queen’s also took measures to mitigate the pressure students felt as a result of the fire.
Ann Tierney, vice-provost and dean of Student Affairs, said the University’s emergency response group took imminent action upon receiving notification of the fire.
“We didn’t know details about the fire, but we knew a lot of students lived in the area, so we knew that students would be affected,” Tierney said.
The emergency response group provided food and a place of refuge in the Athletics and Recreation Centre (ARC) for students affected by the fire. Tierney said approximately 100 students made use of this resource on Dec. 17.
The AMS assisted the University in its relief efforts, monitoring the evaluation centre set up in the ARC and frequently updating its social media to keep students informed.
“I’ve worked at three different universities and I’ve never seen a situation similar to this one,” Tierney said.
She said a group of students residing in a building close to the fire site had their home destroyed.
“Four students, three of whom were international students, lost everything,” Tierney said.
Queen’s has since been working directly with those students through the international office and the registrar.
“We had 14 students take us up on staying in a residence room free of charge,” she said.
In addition to exam deferrals, students also had access to transportation from Campus Security following the fire’s outbreak, and since the date of the fire, the University has made counseling services and emergency loans available to all affected students, according to Tierney.
Of course, the fire singed more than the lives of students.
Its immensity caused the nearby Howard Johnson Hotel to catch fire, as well as houses on Victoria St. These homes sustained damage, as did the Royal Canadian Legion Villa retirement residence, located directly beside the site.
Allan Ward was among the 44 residents forced to evacuate their homes at the Legion Villa.
“I looked out my front window and you could see the flame’s reflection from the garage across the street,” Ward said. “This place was an inferno.”
Attempting to capture photos of the disaster as it struck, Ward said the heat of the blaze deterred him from staying anywhere near the fire.
“I got a picture of the guy on the crane trying to crawl out and then it got so hot, I just got out of there,” Ward recalled. “Now my car’s in the shop being repaired too cause [the heat] cracked my windshield, melted my headlights, bubbled some of the paint on the side of it and did something to the wiring underneath of it and the brakes.”
A resident of the Legion Villa for five years now, Ward tried to help many of his neighbours evacuate.
“I ran up three flights of stairs trying to get people out. I’m one of the ones that can get around, but I couldn’t make it to the fourth [floor],” he said. “I figured I better not go any higher.”
According to Ward, the initial evacuation to the Super 8 motel across the street was well-executed, but the heat radiating from the scene necessitated further evacuation.
“It was cold — really cold,” Ward said. “They put us on city buses and took us down to [Portsmouth] Harbour. There, they took our names and [asked] if we needed medications. They were really good there.”
Legion Villa residents remain displaced by the fire, with some staying with family and friends, others in long-term-care facilities and the remaining 25 residents taking refuge at the Econo Lodge hotel on Princess St., where they stayed during the holidays.
“It was the worst Christmas I’ve ever had in my life,” Ward said. “I’m 70 years old, so I’ve had a few of them. It was the worst one.”
Legion Villa residents now await the day they’ll return home. This will depend on how soon repairs can be made to the damages the fire caused.
“[The fire] came over onto our building and melted our solar panels on the roof,” Darlene Lightfoot, administrator at the Legion Villa, said. “[It] destroyed at least three apartments and did major, major damage to the building.”
As assessment of the damages continues, Lightfoot foresees the displacement continuing for anywhere between two and four months.
“Right now, our concern is to get our building back up and to get our tenants safely back in,” she said. “They’re displaced and they have varying degrees of illness.”
Emotions induced by these circumstances are amplified, as only months ago, Legion Villa residents voiced their opinions against the construction of the large-scale residence complex planned for 663 Princess St.
“To be perfectly honest, we did everything in our power to try to stop it,” Lightfoot said.
According to Lightfoot, tenants of the Legion Villa and its surrounding area believed a multi-purpose residence would better suit the property at 663 Princess St.
“The students weren’t really the problem; it’s just the location,” she said, discussing how incompatible she thought it was to place this type of housing directly next to a seniors’ residence.
Nevertheless, construction went ahead, culminating in the large-scale fire one week before Christmas.
“All I can say is thank God the 500 or 600 students that they were going to put in there were not there,” Lightfoot said.
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