By Brad Whitehouse
Associate News Editor
When the fire alarm blared in Khadija Boulaftali’s apartment, the Ryerson student thought it was just a drill. She didn’t hear sirens or any sounds of emergency. Fire alarms went off for tests all the time in the building. But when she looked out her balcony, she saw flames leaping from the twenty-fourth floor. This alarm was very real.
“When I looked up, then I saw the fire. It was a huge fire coming from the balcony.”
The midwifery student rushed outside to see what was going on. But when she stepped out of the Toronto Community Housing building, there was no going back. And there’s no telling when she, and the 1,700 other residents, will be allowed inside to collect their belongings.
“What I was wearing — that’s all that I have,” she said. “You need your IDs, you need money, you need a change of clothes. No, they don’t let anyone go back up.”
She only has one set of clothes, which she washes every day.
The fire broke out around 5 p.m. at 200 Wellesley St. E., near Sherbourne Street. Firefighters battled the blaze until about 3 a.m. Saturday morning, said David Sheen, Toronto Fires Services division Chief.
Sheen said firefighters who have been working for forty years described the fire as one of the hottest they’d ever experienced. Up to 150 firefighters were on the scene at the height of the fire, he said.
As many as 10 had to be treated for heat exhaustion from the six-alarm blaze.
Fourteen people were hospitalized Friday, including two children and a one-month-old baby.
Other tenants were sheltered at the Wellesley Community Centre across the street, where Canadian Red Cross handed out blankets and food.
Boulaftali slept there Friday night while she awaited the fate of her cat, Iza. Animal services carried her cat down from the building the next day.
She’s now staying at a friend’s house for a couple of days, but doesn’t know where she’ll go after that. She doesn’t have apartment insurance and officials said it’s too early to tell when tenants will be able to move back in.
“They told us at the beginning it’s going to be about ten hours to get back, but they start talking about 48 hours and now there are some who are saying three weeks,” Boulaftali said. “To be homeless, that’s the hardest part.”
Boulaftali, who moved to Toronto in November 2008, has no family in Canada. The 35-year-old was a certified midwife in Morocco and practiced there for 10 years. But when she came to Ontario, her degrees weren’t accepted and she had to be re-certified. She enrolled in the International Midwifery Pre-registration Program (IMPP) at the Chang School so she can start working again.
“You have to go back to zero, so I’m trying just to follow the flow.”
Boulaftali was able to convince firefighters to bring down some of her textbooks, but these are the only belongings she has.
“I want my laptop. I want my bag,” she said.
Allison Gaul, program administrator for IMPP said that she met with Boulaftali and provided her with text books. She said she’ll help the student out any way that she can.
“It’s a difficult situation for immigrants in general, but to have something like this happen is pretty tough.”
Boulaftali was concerned about how she would continue her studies, but said faculty have been supportive. IMPP faculty emailed Boulaftali to offer her money and help to find housing. Gaul told her not to worry about her studies for the moment, and that she would email Boulaftali’s professors to explain her emergency situation.
Gaul directed Boulaftali to CESAR (Continuing Education Students’ Association Ryerson) for help, but she was too exhausted to wait in the long line up outside.
Boulaftali has been going to the community centre everyday for updates on the situation.
Police said there may be water damage and damage to the building’s electrical system and, according to the Fire Marshal’s office, it may take months to determine the cause of the fire. The apartment where the fire started was described as belonging to a hoarder. Officials say it’s too soon to estimate the cost of damage.
“You just have to deal with it and be patient and thank that we don’t have loss of life,” said Boulaftali.
Photo: Marta Iwanek