'They got them out': Stratford women help residents escape from burning building
The Beacon Herald

Quick thinking from a pair of servers working at Molly Blooms on the weekend helped residents escape from a burning building in downtown Stratford.

Annie Sebben said she was taking the trash out at around 12:30 a.m. Saturday morning when she noticed a stack of wooden pallets burning behind 18 Brunswick St., a 130-year-old building next door to the pub. After running inside to tell her shift partner, Rebecca Smith, to call 911, Sebben returned to the building and went inside to knock on doors and pull the fire alarm, she said. The fire – which police now say was deliberately set – had quickly spread from the pallets to the red brick home. 

She was joined by one of the building’s tenants, Uwe Schumann, who said he was outside smoking a pipe when he noticed the frantic bartender and smoke rising from behind the building.

“I think anyone would do it,” Sebben said Wednesday. “I would hope anyone would do it, anyway.”

After most of the residents were outside, Sebben said she grabbed a fire extinguisher but decided to back off and wait for help due to the growing size of the flames.

Stratford fire Chief John Paradis said Saturday firefighters arrived at the scene two minutes and 18 seconds after Smith’s 12:30 a.m. call. A search ensured no one was still inside, he said. One resident was rescued from the roof of an adjacent building, where he jumped to escape the fire.

No injuries were reported. 

Firefighters from Stratford, Shakespeare, and Milverton battled the blaze for more than six hours, finally getting the fire under control at around 7 a.m., Paradis said.

After going to bed at about 11:30 p.m. Friday, resident Connie Gould said she was stirred by what she thought was thunder until her husband, Craig Bolton, said it sounded more like footsteps running up and down the stairs outside of their apartment.

“The next thing you know, the alarm goes off and somebody pounded on our door,” Gould said. “Basically, we got dressed, we grabbed our (pet) bunnies (and) we basically walked out with no shoes on, just our clothes on. The flames were quite high. It was a real big fire.”

Gould’s daughter, Phoebe, whose bedroom is next to the wall where the fire started, also got out safely. Gould said she’s thankful for those extra minutes her family had to get outside.

“We knew nothing about it because it hadn’t hit inside yet, it was all outside. And our windows, we keep them closed because it’s not safe leaving them open being downtown. We’re very blessed and very grateful.”

Colin Morley, another resident, was also thankful.

“They banged on everybody’s door and they got them out and we ran out of the building and watched it burn,” he said. “That back wall, it went up shockingly fast. By the time the firetrucks synced up … and they got there super quick, that whole back wall had shot up in flames. It was wild just how quickly … it went up.”

After opening an investigation into the fire on the weekend, Stratford police said Wednesday they believe the pallets were set on fire deliberately. They’re asking businesses with surveillance cameras on Brunswick Street, Albert Street, and Ontario Street between Downie and Waterloo streets to contact them.

Stratford CAO Joan Thompson said Wednesday the city has issued two orders under the Building Code Act that will keep the heavily damaged building off limits until its owner, Theocharis Brothers Properties, obtains an engineer’s report to advise whether or not it’s safe to re-enter.

Sam Theocharis, one of the company’s directors, said he expects that work to begin Thursday. The report will also help determine whether the building needs to be torn down.

“We’re just in a holding pattern now until we get an engineer’s report to see which direction we have to take,” Theocharis said. 

In the meantime, those impacted by the fire are beginning to pick up the pieces while they wait for more news about the investigation.

Other than his wallet and what he was wearing, Morley, who said he’s been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, lost everything in the fire, including a cat, which he fears wasn’t able to escape. He said he’s been paying rent with payments from the Ontario Disability Support Program while waiting for an affordable housing unit to open up in Stratford.

Currently, Morley said he’s receiving financial help from the Red Cross and staying in a local hotel while considering his next steps.

Theocharis said he’s made three apartments in other buildings available to residents from Brunswick Street.

“Unfortunately with the vacancy situation in Stratford, it’s tough,” he said. “We’re trying to place as many as we can.”

Gould, an employee of a local grocery store, said her rent is subsidized by a mental health organization supporting her husband following a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. She believes she was one of the only tenants in the Brunswick Street building to have tenant insurance so hopes a GoFundMe page launched Sunday receives enough support to help her neighbours.

“I really want people to get in there and raise some money,” she said. “I have insurance; they don’t. And the way the water was going in from front and back and the water coming down, everything is probably going to be toast.”

After purchasing Molly Blooms in February, owner Mike Bayer was stunned to learn about the fire early Saturday morning, about a week after he was able to open the inside of his pub to customers for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.

The business will need to remain closed until a decision is made about the safety of the building next door, said Bayer, who added he’ll try to give servers from Molly Blooms some shifts at his other bar, Gilly’s Pubhouse.

“With everything that’s going on, it just seems incredible for something like that to be happening,” he said. “I was just thankful that my staff just didn’t hesitate. They just stepped up and did what they had to do to make sure everybody was safe and did the right thing all the way through.”

Sebben and Smith kept Molly Blooms available to residents who escaped the fire until about 5 a.m., serving water, pop, and chips while Smith kept in touch with first responders. 

Sebben even found a cage for Gould’s bunnies.

“They were so cute,” she said.  “We just did what we thought was right. I would hope anyone would do the same thing in that position.”

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