BRANDON, Man. – Leanne Marlow saw the flames engulf the building across the street from her Brandon, Man., apartment before the smoke alarm started to ring throughout her building.
Her cat, Buddy, scared of the sound, disappeared, and as she frantically searched for her pet a pounding at her door began with police officers yelling she had to evacuate the Massey Manor building immediately.
Marlow had been on the bus with Vince Li when he beheaded Tim McLean in 2008. Still dealing with the trauma of that horrific incident she was now also facing the dire prospect of losing everything she owned.
“I walked out with the shirt on my back. I didn’t take my ID, purse, pills, nothing… I’ve lost money, everything,” Marlow said in an interview with The Canadian Press outside a hotel in Brandon where residents of her building were being placed by the Canadian Red Cross.
A massive fire burned through several buildings in Brandon’s downtown on Saturday, including one with dozens of apartments managed by community groups.
Around noon, flames started shooting from Christie’s Office Plus building on the 700 block of Pacific Avenue. Residents of Massey Manor — located across the street — watched the flames quickly spread and the smoke fill the neighbourhood.
After they were evacuated, many Massey Manor residents stood on the street as embers drifted first to the Collier’s Sales building and then to the large brick structure they called home.
“The fire department tried to put out Christie’s but they had to back up because it was so bad, it was so high … It was a goner. They just let it burn,” Marlow said.
Multiple explosive sounds rang through the area and the flames spread again to another building that holds a boxing club and a contracting business. A beer vendor about a block away also began to burn, while a handful of buildings in between were left largely undamaged.
Reinforcements from outside the city, including firefighters from CFB Shilo, arrived to help battle the blaze.
Marlow stood on the street, along with many of the families who lived in the Manor’s 58 suites, and watched as the roof collapsed. She thought about her cat, who was still in her top floor apartment, and burst into tears. He had been her support after she was on the bus and witnessed the beheading.
Krisha Prince had gone for a walk with her children, aged one and two, when she received a call from neighbour who told her the building was on fire.
“I just want to wake up. It’s a big dream. I’m just overwhelmed,” she said, her eyes filled with tears. “I’m just sad there are 56 families in that building that lost pretty much everything today.”
Massey Manor was originally constructed as an agricultural supply store and warehouse by Massey-Harris and was converted to apartments in the past decade through a partnership between the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Brandon Friendship Centre and Habitat for Humanity.
Prince and her children quickly ran back just as the roof of the building was collapsing.
“It was like a warzone. Chaos, total chaos,” she said. “But from what I understand everyone is OK and that’s what matters. All that stuff can be replaced.”
Fire crews continued to douse flames overnight and the Red Cross said it was helping more than 100 evacuees.
The Christie’s building was completely destroyed, and the other buildings were substantially damaged, the City of Brandon said in a news release Saturday night. Homes and businesses in the area were also without power.
Premier Brian Pallister posted on Twitter as the fire raged that he was “watching with deep concern as a massive fire devours downtown Brandon landmarks.”
The cause of the fire is still unknown.
Marlow, along with her roommate Debbie Netzel, said she still hasn’t come to terms with the loss.
“I can’t think,” Marlow said.
“It’s just like in shock, you are brain dead. You just don’t know what to do,” Netzel added.