Not knowing what else to do, Jessica Penney quickly began pressing all the buzzers in the apartment entrance way.
A growing fire was filling the historic apartment building at 5167 South St. in Halifax with smoke and the fire alarm hadn’t yet gone off. Penney was next door to alert the residents in a neighbouring unit.
“I buzzed all the apartments over and over and over again because I couldn’t get in,” she said.
Soon, more people began piling out but they had little time to grab possessions. Penney left almost everything behind.
“I didn’t even get my purse. I just got my dog and that’s it,” she said.
She also may be out of her job at Tomasino’s, one of the restaurants attached to the over 100-year-old building. Taj Mahal, Thai Chin and Café Chianti are the others. Fire officials don’t yet know how much damage the restaurants sustained.
But damage to the apartment side was clear. After the fire started around 8 a.m., Dylan Jackman and Dominic Bolger raced home from the airport to see massive plumes of fire and smoke shooting from their bedroom window.
“I don’t know what to do right now. I don’t know what to think yet. I guess everything’s gone,” Jackman said.
Officials don’t know what caused the fire. Residents from all 21 units made it out without injury. They haven’t been told when they can return home.
Many residents, most of them young, don’t have insurance. Some stood in the cold watching the apartment while wearing pajama pants or Crocs.
The nearby Westin Hotel offered the displaced residents shelter, food and a free room for the night. The Red Cross is also offering help. But some had other concerns.
“My cats are still in there. They won’t let us get them,” a worried Ryan Morrison said in the morning. To her relief, she was reunited with one cat about an hour later and the other was found late afternoon hiding behind the stove.
Shortly before noon, Penney was playing with her mutt Ducky in the Westin hotel. Like many others, she was staying upbeat.
“The important thing is that everyone is OK, right?” she said. “All you can really do is laugh and hope that things will work out.”
Firefighters spent hours tearing open the building to halt the fire, but there were difficulties. Halifax Regional Fire spokesman Capt. Dave Meldrum said the old building contained heavy material that was difficult to cut through, there were empty spaces for fire to hide and spread, and the cold weather made equipment freezing a concern.