Grieving families struggle to put lives back together two months after fatal Oshawa fire

Grieving families struggle to put lives back together two months after fatal Oshawa fire
By Victoria Gibson
Toronto Star
Link to article: Grieving families struggle to put lives back together two months after fatal Oshawa fire

For two months, Darlin and Gerry Bonchek have been trying to give their disabled grandson, Ben, answers about the fire that killed his entire family.

They want to make sure he knows that “they didn’t leave him on purpose,” Darlin said, her voice shaking.

“He asks a lot of questions, and he doesn’t understand.”

Darlin and Gerry, who are in their 60s and retired, had their world turned upside down on Jan. 8, when flames tore through their daughter Lindsey’s multi-unit home in Oshawa, killing her, her 9-year-old daughter, Madeline, her four-year-old son, Jackson, and another man, Steven Macdonald. Macdonald, 50, had gone into the burning home to try to save those inside.

“There’s nobody left,” Darlin said through tears. “So he’s going to be here with us.”

While processing their own grief at losing their daughter and two grandchildren, the Boncheks, who have a 29-year-old daughter with autism who lives with them in their Courtice home, have done everything they can to put Ben’s life back together.

They drive Ben, who is 16, to and from Oshawa every day, so he doesn’t have to leave the school where he feels most comfortable. “It gives him time. It gives him what he’s used to,” Darlin said. And while Ben’s at school learning, they spend time with their adult daughter, Carly, who is non-verbal. Darlin still doesn’t know how to help her understand what happened.

“I know she cared about them, but you can’t explain to her where they are,” she said.

When Ben asks what his mom and siblings are doing, his grandparents tell him they’re in heaven. They keep photographs and momentos of the family visible in the living room. Gerry walked through the sooty, blackened house multiple times with a flashlight, and brought home anything that could be saved. A local dry cleaner still has Madeline’s first communion dress.

They’re doing everything they can to scrub the smell of fire from the gown.

Meanwhile, the International Association of Fire Fighters is taking a hard look at how the tragedy happened — as requested by the Oshawa fire fighters’ union. There was measurable risk on Centre St. before the fire broke out, according to a report it released this week. The census tract that the house was built inside has a disproportionately skewed number of fire risk factors when compared to the rest of Oshawa — a city about 60 kilometres east of Toronto.

Those include old and low-income homes, or ones with vulnerable populations.

Only one of the city’s six staffed fire stations is within four minutes’ travel from the house, even under ideal conditions. That station is known as Station 1. It’s typically staffed by three firefighters, one captain and one platoon chief. There are three others within eight minutes.

The report doesn’t detail which stations responded on Jan. 8, when flames tore through the two-storey-and-loft residence. It would later be revealed by investigators that the house had no working smoke alarms — just wires and brackets jutting out from the spaces where they should have been, according to Ontario fire investigator Richard Derstroff.

The report recommends a “a thorough risk assessment of Oshawa” be undertaken. Oshawa Councillor Amy McQuaid-England spoke to media days after the fire, and said she’d been asking the city to take action and increase fire safety and inspection for eight years.

The Boncheks pleaded with those reading their story to check their alarms and detectors, “so this never happens to another family.”

On Friday, a fresh dusting of snow blanketed the Centre St. house. The roof was blackened, a tipped-over baby pram was on the porch and snow-covered flowers covered the sidewalk. A single teddy bear lay on the pavement. The Boncheks don’t know when the remains of the house will be torn down.

While they process what happened, others have jumped in to help. Darlin’s sister and her husband flew back from Mexico when news of the fire broke. Gerry’s sister and her boyfriend collected clothing. Feed the Need, a food bank where Ben sorts items every Wednesday, crocheted him a blanket by hand.

And on Sunday, at 11 a.m, there’ll be a community fundraiser for Ben’s care at the Storie Park Clubhouse in Oshawa — billed as “Help Rebuild His World.”

The money donated so far, to a GoFundMe campaign run by their niece Rachel, has been put in a trust account for Ben. Their main added cost for his care right now is gas, to make sure his life isn’t uprooted from Oshawa to Courtice. But that may change as the years go on. They spoke about having to rely on friends for help as they get older.

Darlin wished that Lindsey, who was 36, could see the outpouring of love for her and her kids.

“She was a single mom, but she did her best, and I wish she could have known how much people cared about her,” Darlin said, her eyes welling with tears once more. “Because it’s been really, really great. People have been amazing.”

In another family’s world, another family’s grief, echoes.

Alysha Macdonald, whose father, Steven, died in the blaze, is facing a big moment. On Friday, she shared that she and her fiance are anticipating their first baby in the coming days. Steven had been there for every doctor’s appointment throughout her pregnancy, up until January. He was always right by her side, she said.

“My dad was our biggest support system,” Alysha wrote in a message to the Star. “It’s been an adjustment.”

While learning to go about their lives without Steven there, the pair have had a lot of support. They found a new place to live, and the landlord let them in early and had the fire department double-check their safety. They worry about that now, Alysha explained.

The Canadian Corps Legion donated a hall for Steven’s celebration of life. Alysha’s work gave her time off to grieve on top of maternity leave. People came forward to donate things for the baby, from strollers to play pens, to help them get back on their feet. Her hairstyling college wiped her remaining school fees, and offered whatever help they could give. “It’s honestly been so amazing how kind everyone has been through this,” she wrote.

As motherhood gets closer, she’s looking to the lessons she learned from her dad. “He was more of my best friend than anything,” she said. He cared for everyone in her life, even her friends and their children. “He did everything for everyone,” she told the Star. “He was an amazing parent.”

Lindsey, who would call and talk to her mom every day, always worked so hard, and was a good mom, her parents said. Jackson was “a beautiful little boy,” Darlin said. A baby photo of him being kissed on each cheek by his siblings is in the living room. And Madeline, equal part artist and mathematician, had just become a girl guide.

Her first badge, in bird watching, was being sent to her grandparents. And amid the teary discussion, Darlin remembered her granddaughter going outside, trying to get birds in the yard to land on her head, and she smiled.

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