Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'It was built to burn'

Poorly constructed building as much to blame as arsonist for city's second most deadly fire

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MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS 
There is a tiny park at the north east corner of Ellice and Spence. In it is a boulder with a plaque commemorating the victims of the Hasselmere fire, the second worst in Winnipeg history in terms of deaths. The boulder is on the Ellice Avenue side of the park. It is the 40th anniversary of the fire.

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MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS There is a tiny park at the north east corner of Ellice and Spence. In it is a boulder with a plaque commemorating the victims of the Hasselmere fire, the second worst in Winnipeg history in terms of deaths. The boulder is on the Ellice Avenue side of the park. It is the 40th anniversary of the fire. Photo Store

IN a lonely park on Ellice Avenue, across the street from the University of Winnipeg's Lockhart Hall, are a plaque and a tree that commemorate Winnipeg's second-deadliest fire, which happened 40 years ago this weekend.

The Haselmere Apartments was a 1910-era, four-storey walk-up at 559 Ellice Ave. at Furby Street. It contained 28 suites and 51 residents.

Just after 1:15 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 18, 1974, a passing motorist spotted flames in the main floor of the building and sped to a pay phone to call the fire department. He told the Winnipeg Free Press:

"By the time I got back, everything and everybody was in hysteria. Some people were still yelling from the windows and some people were jumping."

Another witness said: "When I reached the apartment block, they had just taken away the first person hurt in a jump. There were people screaming and running all over the place and people yelling for help from the windows. I hope I never see anything like that ever again."

Adding to the misery of the night and hampering firefighters was the temperature. Environment Canada records show the low that night was -20 C.

It took firefighters five hours to put out the blaze. Later that morning, fire Chief Cam Shewan confirmed they had discovered seven unidentifiable bodies, four residents were reported missing and another 22 had been taken to hospital. Three firefighters were injured when part of the building's parapet collapsed on them.

By that evening, the list of dead had grown to nine, with six people still in hospital, most with broken bones after jumping from windows or falling while climbing down drain pipes.

In the days that followed, the city rallied to help the victims. The Salvation Army spearheaded a fundraising campaign that hoped to raise $5,000. Within a week, it surpassed $15,000, and by end of February, the total was more than $27,000. Numerous companies came forward with offers of free groceries, furniture and moving services.

The fire was considered suspicious because it started in the basement storage area well away from any electrical sources.

Police questioned a number of people but zeroed in on Herbert Wray Williams, a 21-year-old who sometimes stayed with his uncle in his suite at the Haselmere. After a couple of rounds of questioning, Williams broke down and told investigators he had intentionally set the fire.

Williams explained that he and his uncle had been drinking in the suite and got into an argument. The younger Williams stormed out and went to a downtown hotel, where he continued drinking. Upon returning, his uncle would not let him back into the suite, so Williams went to the basement to sleep. There, he saw a storage locker full of old newspapers and in a drunken rage lit the papers on fire and left.

The case went to trial and on June 6, 1974, after only six hours of deliberation, a jury found Herbert Wray Williams guilty of arson and multiple counts of criminal negligence causing death. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The fire was started by an arsonist, but officials blamed the building's lack of fire protection for allowing it to get out of control in such a short time. The Haselmere Apartments had no sprinklers, fire alarms or smoke detectors. Internal stairways were not shielded by a firewall and the exterior fire escapes were unusable. In a Jan. 25, 1998, Winnipeg Free Press story, former fire chief Jack Coulter said: "It was just built to burn."

The reason for these lapses had to do with a "grandfather clause" in the city's fire code that exempted apartment buildings that predated the code. The city set about to change this.

By the end of January, the Winnipeg buildings commission was tasked with tackling these deficiencies, and on May 15, 1974, began enforcing the fire code on all buildings, regardless of when they were built.

Landlords argued that the required upgrades would cost tens of thousands of dollars per building and put many of them out of business. Some raised the dark picture of a housing squeeze as owners walked away from their properties or demolished them rather than upgrade. They also challenged the legality of the commission to enforce the code retroactively -- a tactic that worked.

The city had to go back to the drawing board to create a new bylaw giving the commission the authority to enforce the fire code in existing buildings. That bylaw passed in August 1975 and the long process of inspecting the city's 1,750 apartment blocks, 250 of which were built before 1911, began. It would take years to complete.

It was an awful fate for the nine victims of the Haselmere Apartments, but their deaths on that tragic night in January 1974 saved the lives of countless others by preventing future large-scale apartment fires.

The Haselmere Apartments fire victims:

Donna De Witt, 19, of suite 18

Frank Taylor, 61, and wife Ruby Taylor, 70, of suite 15

Manuel Matias and wife Maude Matias, 56, of suite 22

Ameena Abrahim, 30, of suite 22

Mary McLean Nelson, 54, of suite 9

Doris Janecke, 45, of suite 23

Eva Stempkowski, 60s, of suite 16

Christian Cassidy writes about local history at his blog, West End Dumplings.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2014 A1

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