Downtown Manor fire victims lose everything

By Denise Titian, June 3, 2011

Baby Linda Hopkins, 5 months, mom Brandi Lucas, and grandma Karen Sutherland attended a lunch held at the Port Alberni Friendship Centre for victims of a fire that ripped through a downtown apartment building leaving more than 20 families homeless on May 31.

An early morning fire has gutted a Port Alberni apartment building leaving more than 20 families homeless. On May 31 fire alarms rang early in the morning at the two-storey Downtown Manor located on Athol Street between 3rdand 4thAvenues.

Karen Sutherland was sound asleep with her husband Ben when she was awakened by a knock on the bedroom door.

“It was my son-in-law Vaughan who said the fire alarm is going off again,” she recalled. Vaughan told her he had checked the door to the unit and noticed that it was hot and said that everyone should get out.

Karen and her family were staying with her adult daughter and son-in-law while they looked for a home. That night there were 10 people in the apartment, including two teens and two babies.

The family made their way to the nearest emergency exit, which was right next to their apartment, but it was too smoky so they made their way down the long hallway toward the main entrance. At the time the halls were not very smoky, but Karen said they could feel the heat from the fire.

They later learned that the fire broke out directly under their apartment, likely in a basement laundry room or stairwell.

Once outside, the family sat on the sidewalk across the street for about four hours as they watched the building burn. Karen remembered how cold it was and how scared they were. They worried about a tenant who wasn’t answering her door. The woman showed up later that morning and everyone was relieved that she was safe.

All residents of the 26-unit building escaped uninjured.

A family member arrived at 9 a.m. and took the family to their home. Social Services provided all fire victims accommodation for three days at a local motel.

Donations are pouring in to various service agencies in the community to help the families.

On June 2 the Port Alberni Friendship Centre (PAFC) hosted a luncheon for the fire victims, allowing them to sift through a dozen tables of donated clothing and toiletries.

Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council President Cliff Atleo arrived at the luncheon to let the people know they are not alone. He delivered more than $400 collected at a Council of Ha’wiih fisheries meeting he was attending that day.

Karen said her family is getting by on donations. The Ministry of Social Services has given everyone funds to purchase a small amount of clothing and toiletries.

Holding her five-month-old granddaughter, Linda, who also lost everything in the fire, Karen remembered a man who reached out to help the baby.

“He saw her (baby Linda) on the news and he gave all his baby stuff to her,” she smiled.

Sadness washed over her face as she recalled the material things she lost.

“My husband got his residential school cheque and bought me a TV and a microwave,” she said, her voice trailing off. “But it’s my pictures, wedding pictures…pictures of my grandchildren,” she said before bursting into tears.

Comforted by her daughters, Karen dried her eyes and said they will need mostly furniture.

The PAFC continues to provide some meals to the fire victims, including a potluck dinner on June 3. Both the PAFC and Salvation Army are accepting donations for the families.