By The Canadian Press
Dec. 15, 2016, Port Colborne, Ont. - A house engulfed in flames several metres high. A father running out of the burning home frantically pleading for someone to help rescue his wife and two children trapped inside.
By The Canadian Press
That was the horrific scene neighbours woke up to early Wednesday as they helplessly watched the fire rapidly consume the two-storey home in the small community of Port Colborne in southern Ontario.
By morning, officials confirmed that four members of one family had died in the fire.
News of the deaths sent shock waves through the tight-knit community that is now grappling to come to terms with the tragedy.
Police did not name the victims, but friends and family identified them as Tammy Burd, 37, her children Samantha Zuvic, 15 and Joshua Zuvic, 2, and her grandmother, eighty-three-year-old Eva Burd.
Two men, who police identified as family members, were able to escape the flames. One of them was the children’s father.
Adrienne Gerry, who lives across the street from the home and witnessed the chaos, said the father — wearing only a pair of boxers — had been in a frenzy as flames ate away at his house.
“He was in really bad shape,” she said, adding that her husband gave him some clothes to wear.
He was begging for us to save his “babies,” she said.
The children and their parents lived in a unit in the back of the house, Gerry said, while the woman’s uncle and grandmother lived in the front.
By the time firefighters arrived — just after 1 a.m. — the house was entirely ablaze.
Niagara Regional police Const. Phil Gavin said emergency responders were able to remove an 83-year-old woman from the home, but rescuers could not save her life. Crews were then unable to venture any further into the home because of the intensity of the flames, he said. “Port Colborne is not a large community, a lot of people know everybody. This is a very tragic situation that’s going to impact this whole town, and certainly this neighbourhood,” Gavin said.
“It’s going to be something that’s going to take a while to get over.”
Such deadly fires are a rarity in the community, said fire Chief Thomas Cartwright, who noted that before the blaze, the city of Port Colborne had only seen four fire-related deaths in more than four decades.
Cartwright was overcome with emotion as he spoke to reporters.
“It really is difficult to understand why this happens,” Cartwright said.”Obviously this time of year is very devastating. I’m concerned about my people and my emotions speak for themselves.”
For the family of those who died, the extent of the devastation wrought by the fire was still sinking in.
Liz Winger, who is Tammy Burd’s aunt, said she rushed down to the neighbourhood early Wednesday morning after hearing about the blaze from her sister.
“We are taking it hour by hour,” said an emotional Winger. “We are there for each other because that’s all we can do.”
Winger described her niece as a “really good person” while she called the children “just adorable.”
“We are cancelling our Christmas,” Winger said. “We just can’t deal with Christmas.”
Through the day, area residents, friends and co-workers paused by a police barrier that had been erected near the house to exchange hugs, discuss how they had known various family members and stare at the ruins of the burnt-out home.
The roof of the residence had caved in entirely, the home’s second storey was gutted and its interior was a sooty mess. Outside, however, children’s toys and a swing set appeared unscathed.
Lucia Overholt, who lives up the street, said she was still awake when her dog alerted her to the commotion caused by the fire.
“The smoke, oh my lord the smoke, it was unbearable. You couldn’t even see, that’s how thick and heavy the smoke was,” she said. “I saw the flames, three or four metres high. It was unbearable to see.”
Overholt, who has lived in the area for decades, said the incident has rocked the neighbourhood.
“It’s a very tight community,” she said. “They’re all nice people.”
One man who stopped near the residence recalled seeing Burd, her husband and their children just days ago, at a Christmas party over the weekend in nearby Niagara Falls, Ont.
“They’re such nice people, young too,” said Myles Lynk, who worked with Burd at a chicken processing facility. “Everybody was having a good time.”