By Laura King
March 29, 2016, Toronto – It's coincidence that an inquest into seven fire fatalities, including four members of one family who died in a horrific house fire in East Gwillimbury, Ont., starts today, exactly three years after that awful incident.
The coroner's inquest was delayed six months for procedural reasons, which, to me, is code for the government didn't have its ducks in a row, and which is no wonder given the complexities of holding two inquests (sort of) simultaneously.
Technically, the inquest – which is scheduled to run eight to 10 weeks – is in two parts, which, apparently, is rather unusual but is necessary to accommodate lawyers' schedules and religious holidays, according to coroner's counsel Frank Giordano, who graciously provided as much detail in an email about the inquest as he was able to given that crucial documents such as the witness list still seemed fairly fluid late last week.
First, Dr. David Evans, a retired regional coroner and surgeon, and the five-person jury will hear about a fire in Whitby, Ont., on April 29, 2012 – almost four years ago – that killed three young people: Benjamin Twiddy, 19; Marilee Towie, 17; and Holly Harrison, 18. Some evidence introduced in that portion of the inquest – about, perhaps, fire behaviour when fresh oxygen is introduced into a burning structure – will likely be applicable to both incidents.
If your recollection of these seven fire fatalities is foggy – which is likely the case given the gap between the incidents and the inquest(s) – here's a refresher.
The three teens died in their second-storey Whitby apartment. They had called 911 from their cell phones. According to news reports, police arrived first and kicked in the door but couldn't reach the three friends – there was too much smoke, heat and fire. Two Whitby firefighters were awarded bravery medals for attempting to rescue the teens, who were found huddled together. The fire started when one of the teens used a towel to take something out of the oven. Reports indicate that the unit had working smoke alarms.
The Dunsmuir family also called 911, presumably from the upstairs master bedroom of their two-storey home in a small community called Sharon in the Town of East Gwillimbury (part of the Regional Municipality of York). Kevin Dunsmuir, 55, his wife Jennifer, 51 – who was mobility impaired after having had a stroke – and their two sons, Robert, 19, and Cameron, 16, may have been trapped in the bedroom. (A third son was away at university.) A report by the Office of the Ontario Fire Marshal concluded that the fire started as a result of a clogged lint filter in the dryer on the main floor of the home. There was no working smoke alarm on the first floor. News reports said police arrived first and entered the home to try to reach the family, but couldn't.
There was lots of talk in news reports – and by the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association – after the East Gwillimbury fire about response times, automatic aid and levels of service.
I expect, though, at the inquest(s) we'll hear more about fire dynamics than response times given that the issue has settled down in the three years it has taken to get to this point, although I do find it bizarre that the inquest is happening in urban Toronto rather than in the rural part of York Region, where everyone is familiar with volunteer fire departments and understands that calling 911 does not elicit a three- or four-minute fire response.
The last fire-fatality inquest in Ontario, in 2012, explored the 2009 Muskoka Heights retirement-home fire in Orillia that killed four people; it resulted in mandatory, retroactive sprinklers and multiple other changes – including new legislation – to better protect seniors and other vulnerable occupants.
Few fire-service leaders or organizations are beating drums about sprinklers for residential structures, despite almost 100 fire deaths in Ontario last year, so I'm interested to see the direction in which lawyers take this proceeding.
It's not clear – at least publicly – whether the occupants in the Whitby apartment and the East Gwillimbury home died before or after police arrived.
I expect we'll know the answer to that fairly early on.
* Follow @FireinCanada on Twitter for live updates from the inquest today.