Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A lifetime's work up in smoke

Warehouse fire puts firefighters to test

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FIREFIGHTERS battled a stubborn fire for more than 15 hours in Point Douglas yesterday as four storeys worth of commercial equipment went up in smoke inside a family business on Higgins Avenue.

While smoke billowed across the city, Able Wholesale co-owner Morris Henoch could only stand, watch and hold back the tears as the business founded by his father Meier in the 1950s was destroyed.

"It's surreal.It's as if your life just ceases to be.It's like the end," said Morris Henoch, his face scorched red from spending 15 hours watching dozens of firefighters try to squelch a blaze that apparently started at the rear of the building.

Founded by Meier Henoch, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, Able Wholesale operated on Princess Avenue before moving to Higgins in the '60s. Meier and his wife Sara convinced their son Morris to walk away from a teaching career to help them run the warehouse, which bought and sold new and used stock from restaurants, hotels and other businesses.

Even as the blaze consumed the warehouse, a sign on the exterior promised "four floors of unique items" and "new arrivals daily." Acting fire platoon chief John Buchan said all those unique items -- coupled with the age and style of the building -- made the blaze tough to battle.

Unlike construction today, the building was comprised of large, thick timbers, which gave the fire ample fuel, he said.

"It has everything from furniture, file cabinets, mattresses, pesticides, big rolls of plastic for wrapping things with and any number of things," Buchan said. "And it's a four-storey brick structure with pre-cast concrete floors. I don't think the building is going to be sound after this."

The fire began just after 12:30 a.m. yesterday and was restricted to a third of the building until the wee hours of the morning. But the wind shifted at 6 a.m., pushing the flames into the rest of the structure, which firefighters on tall ladders were still dousing with high pressure hoses at 5:30 p.m.

Earlier in the day, a long crane from Paragon Industries had to be used to bash through plywood-covered windows stuffed with pink insulation to allow firefighters to blast water into the interior.

At the fire's peak, more than 40 firefighters and 14 fire trucks were at the scene, but by yesterday afternoon that number had dropped to 24 firefighters and eight trucks.

The cause is under investigation by both the fire commissioner and the city's arson task force. The building passed a fire inspection less than a month ago, Winnipeg Fire-Paramedic Chief Wes Shoemaker said.

In recent weeks, vagrants living between the rear of the warehouse and the CPR Keewatin tracks have lit several bonfires and brushfires, said co-owner Henoch, who praised firefighters for their efforts despite the loss of what he called "his retirement plan."

Also lost in the fire: A crib intended for a grandchild expected in December and possessions belonging to his daughter Ardith, who's getting married next month.

Nobody was injured in the fire, but the blaze caused traffic havoc in the morning and afternoon rush hours, with motorists and Winnipeg Transit buses forced to detour on to Sutherland Avenue to avoid a blocade on Higgins.

Low-hanging smoke in the area caused police to evacuate 22 homes in the area. Ten evacuees were taken to a reception centre at the Salvation Army building on Logan Avenue while the rest went to stay with friends and family.

Robert Muswagon, an evacuee at the centre with his wife and two kids, said while he smelled smoke for hours, he didn't think he needed to leave his residence on Boyle Street until police knocked on his door at about 9:30 a.m.

"I'd rather be home," Muswagon said. "But they've got stuff to eat and drink here."

The blaze was the latest in recent years to hit the area. Other fires include the Manitoba Cold Storage building and the Ogilvie Mill.

Able Warehouse's four employees may never be able to go back to work, said Morris Henoch, who doesn't know what he's going to do now that the family business is gone.

"Maybe it's a new beginning," he said, praising family and friends who dropped by Higgins Avenue yesterday to offer their support.

"Today is one thing," added his wife Lynne. "Waking up tomorrow will be harder."

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 20, 2006 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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