It all looked so simple and straightforward as the firefighters rolled out that frigid Sunday evening on Feb. 4, 2007.

This article was published 28/1/2017 (1937 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It all looked so simple and straightforward as the firefighters rolled out that frigid Sunday evening on Feb. 4, 2007.

It was something they’d handled countless times before, a garage fire that was located across the river from their fire hall. 

Within minutes, two of them would be dead, four badly injured and everyone at the scene, along with their spouses and children, scarred in some way — some physically, some mentally, and some both.

Veteran Winnipeg fire captains, Thomas Nichols and Harold Lessard, had only minutes to live.

Ed Wiebe, now 61 and a firefighter for almost 29 years, lost consciousness but was rescued after suffering burns to 70 per cent of his body. He was off work for four years and still hasn’t recovered, will never fully recover, he says. But Wiebe, along with Lionel Crowther, Darcy Funk and Scott Atchison, made it out alive.

Firefighters will hold a private memorial for Nichols and Lessard Thursday, two days before the 10th annivesary of that fateful night. Last week, Crowther and Wiebe spoke in depth publicly for the first time about how a seemingly routine fire turned tragic.


As news of the tragedy spread, firefighters raced to the scene, including some coming straight from home.

BORIS MINKEVICH / FREE PRESS FILES

As news of the tragedy spread, firefighters raced to the scene, including some coming straight from home.

Crowther, then only 33 and a firefighter for nine years, remembers how bitterly cold it was that night. Wind chills were more than -40, and it was Super Bowl Sunday, keeping most Winnipeggers off the streets.

"I was called in on overtime — it wasn’t my shift," he says, a decade later now one of Canada’s most senior fire ground instructors. 

Recognition of PTSD, change to firefighting practices resulted from blaze

A deadly St. Boniface house fire altered many lives 10 years ago, and it also changed firefighting in the city.

 

Captains Thomas Nichols (right) and Harold Lessard (left) were killed, and four other firefighters were seriously injured in the fire Feb. 4, 2007. Many others were traumatized by the tragedy, suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.

They’ve received counselling and therapy, and PTSD is now recognized by the profession.

“We never even knew what PTSD was,” said Alex Forrest, the longtime president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg. “That led to the groundbreaking legislation we really pushed.”

Significant changes were made to building codes and firefighting practices since that night. “We were able to do some amazing things provincially,” Forrest said.

It’s now law that attached garages must have fire-resistant thick drywall between the garage and the house, and it must extend to the very top of the garage. The garage must also have a smoke- and fire-detection system in new-home construction.

“I can think of three to four cases we fought fires in the same type of building — we learned from (15 Place) Gabrielle Roy,” Forrest said.

Fire crews are more likely to pull firefighters out of new homes with attached garages and take a defensive position, he said. “We know how fast the fire can go — we risk everything if we believe people are inside. (But) sometimes we let the house go. We do that once a month, where the district chief will say, ‘We’ve rescued the people, it’s too dangerous.’ Those new places go up like Roman candles.”

Building materials in new homes are often cheaper, he said, and include a lot of particle board, glue and plastic. Floors that will last 20 minutes or more in a fire in an older home could collapse in six minutes in a new home, he said.

Email for information on the scholarship fund that honours Tom Nichols and Harold Lessard.

That night, an eternity compressed into a few minutes, still haunts Crowther, who, with his wife, Joanna, now spends much of his off-duty time seeking out and counselling burned firefighters across Canada and the U.S.

Sixteen firefighters in four vehicles left Station One at Ellen Street and McDermot Avenue around 7:30 p.m., responding to a report of a garage fire at 15 Place Gabrielle Roy near Whittier Park in old St. Boniface. With virtually no traffic on the roads, they arrived on scene in 4.5 minutes.

"There are some portions of the job that aren’t very pleasant, some of the stuff I’ve had to live through," Wiebe says. "And then there’s Gabrielle Roy."

The firefighters were watching the Super Bowl, which featured former University of Manitoba lineman Israel Idonije playing for the Chicago Bears, when the gong rang to dispatch them. With the cold, they knew it would be difficult working conditions.

A fire crew from St. Boniface was first on the scene, setting up the hydrants. The garage attached to the two-storey home was fully engaged.

Lionel Crowther

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Lionel Crowther

"I was with Capt. Harold Lessard. I’d known him for a number of years," recalls Crowther, sitting 10 years later in a lounge at the back of Mountain Bean coffee shop in North Kildonan, warm and comfortable in his family’s favourite neighbourhood spot. With amazing straightforwardness, he’s retelling a story he’s told to many firefighters over the years but never for the public.

"We were tasked with rescue tactics, in case there was someone in the house," Crowther says. "Right away, the second engine in was No. 2, with Captain Tom Nichols, to see if the fire stayed in the garage or extended to the house."

"The front door was open — I could see stairs leading up to the second floor," says Wiebe, who sat down for an interview a couple of days later at his home. "I checked with (Lessard) that we were ready to go in."

The door had been unlocked, and only later did the fire crew learn the occupants — children of the homeowners who were away — had reached safety two houses down.

Nichols took several firefighters and a hose to the second floor in case the fire had extended into the house. It was all routine, Crowther says, practised countless times and executed many times: "normal setup, everyday."

Every firefighter wore full gear, including a mask, breathing equipment and a neck microphone through which all 16 could contact everyone else instantly.

Ed Wiebe

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Ed Wiebe

Crowther followed Nichols and Wiebe up to the second floor, where the pair were going to check out rooms to the right. While the garage was fully ablaze, there was no sign of fire in the house.

"I remember going up the stairs through some light smoke; I don’t remember a whole lot from that night," Wiebe says.

Recalls Crowther: "I had a little thermal imager — I could see no heat at that time."

There was no reason for any firefighters to be worried, though they knew the wall closest to the garage was warming up, he says. "It all appeared normal, light smoke. We’re just helping hump hose. We were doing a primary search, we call it."

The four walls of a house are designated alpha, bravo, charlie, and delta, he explains. The front of the house is alpha, the other sides running clockwise. He and Atchison moved towards the daughter’s bedroom at the front of the house, the alpha side. 

"I’m following Scott, touching his leg," so they knew where each other was, while getting orientated to the layout. Crowther stood at the doorway to mark their exit out, while Atchison checked the room, both for people and signs of trouble.

Meanwhile, Nichols and Wiebe were in the master bedroom in the charlie/bravo corner. Only two to three minutes had lapsed since the crews first arrived.

The last clear image Wiebe has is being atop the staircase, which was like a landing that overlooked the living room. "At one point on the stairs, I stopped to help get the hose line up."

Most of the firefighters were outside taking on the garage fire, while the district chief was in overall command. Meanwhile, Nichols had called for ventilation, to try to clear the smoke out of the house.

"Our district chief was outside, setting up his command," Crowther says. "He was doing his 360.

"The district chief can see the smoke change. It’s called reading the smoke. He said, ‘Forget the ventilation,’ he wanted us to evacuate the house. I said to Scotty, ‘They want us to evacuate the house.’ All of a sudden, the smoke dropped on us like a black curtain, turbulent smoke.

"In an instant, we started to feel pain from the heat."

Says Wiebe: "Suddenly it was pitch-black."

He didn’t have a helmet light and can’t remember if the house lights were working, though that wouldn’t have made any difference. He went into the house holding a hand lantern but can’t remember what happened to it.

"I do remember it being incredibly black, an intense buildup of heat," says Wiebe, sitting with his, wife, Diane on the sofa in their Westwood home, their dog at his feet. "I must have been close to Harold, because I could hear him saying it’s time to get out."

While Nichols had sent one of his crew outside to grab a special pole used to poke holes in the ceiling to look for signs the fire was spreading, he and Darcy Funk were still upstairs. 

"There’s Darcy and Tom on that side. Capt. Lessard was doing his search, and Ed was on the stairs," remembers Crowther.

The heat was searing and visibility vanished. Soot covered their masks.

"Scotty ran right into me, we couldn’t see each other," Crowther says. "Scotty agreed, ‘Let’s get to the stairs.’ I’m doing a left-hand search to find the stairs — we’re only 12 to 14 feet down the hall."


Wreaths honouring Tom Nichols (right) and Harrold Lessard marked the scene.

MIKE APORIUS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Wreaths honouring Tom Nichols (right) and Harrold Lessard marked the scene.

In October 2007, an investigation concluded the fire would have taken 40 minutes to spread from the attached garage to the house if 5/8-inch fire-treated drywall had been installed as a fireguard.

The investigation was only partially made public, authorities concluding some findings would have been too upsetting for the families.

The viciously cold air combined with the flames from the garage changed conditions so rapidly the air became superheated, and a "black fire" occurred — an indication of an impending or delayed flashover.

One firefighter who asked not to be named said the conditions within the flashover instantly placed the men on the second floor at the top of a fiery chimney.


 A condolence book outside the mayor's office in 2007.

MIKE APORIUS / FREE PRESS FILES

A condolence book outside the mayor's office in 2007.

Sitting in Mountain Bean, Crowther’s voice doesn’t change, but his eyes flicker signs of the emotion of retelling the story. It’s still just a few minutes after going into the house; it’s still just a ‘normal’ search. 

"All of a sudden, a fireball came right up at us. We thought the fire had breached. It swirled and flashed up — it came right up the house at us."

The railing at the top of the stairs had Plexiglass and caught the brunt of the fireball. 

"We knew we’d lost our stairs," says Crowther, who then told Atchison they should go back to the bedroom and get out through a window.

That thick, turbulent smoke is called black fire, full of particulates just waiting to go up and the visible precursor to a deadly flashover, Crowther explains.

"It just needed fuel, and it lit up on us. I ended up flat on my back in the bathroom, and I didn’t know what had hit me."

Like Crowther, Wiebe says he’d never experienced anything like it before. "In past experience, we’d been able to look for signs of the extension of fire, or the floor feeling spongy. Your mind does funny tricks when it’s in dire circumstances.

"I could hear Harold yelling that we have to get out. All I knew was, I was in a place I should not have been."

Wiebe hammered on what he thought was a window, but it was a glass picture frame. "I was frantic, I lost consciousness and crumpled to the floor. I remember trying to find the hose line we brought up, to follow it out."

Captain Thomas Nichols was with the WFPS for 32 years.

Captain Thomas Nichols was with the WFPS for 32 years.

Crowther says Nichols had shattered a window, which gave the fire the oxygen it craved. "It went through the exit point, the window, and unfortunately it hit Tom. His son later shared the extent of his injuries," says Crowther, going silent for a minute, staring off at something only he could see.

Crowther had no clue where the bathroom figured in the floor plan, had no idea how far it was from where he’d been, but there he was, lying on the bathroom floor. 

He stumbled upon a set of boots through the smoke, thinking it was Atchison, then realizing it was Lessard. "I got him up, I kept saying, ‘We have to find a window, we have to find a window.’"

Crowther hit a wall, reached up, and found one. From nearby, he heard Atchison yell that he’d found a window, and Crowther heard glass breaking.

He later learned Atchison dove head-first through the window, landing on the porch cover, then grabbing hold of a drainpipe. A ladder quickly gave him a way down, and Atchison expected to find his mates outside. He heard later Atchison said to the district chief: " Like, where’s everybody?"

"The chief put out right away that we had four members missing on the second floor."

Crowther had lost his fire axe when he got blown into the bathroom, so he pounded on the triple-pane window with his gloved fists. "It felt like concrete, I couldn’t feel my hands or arms anymore."

When he cracked the window, "I created an exit point — everything’s (smoke and heat) coming through on Harold and me. I knew the RIT (rapid intervention team) was coming, I could hear a lot of screaming in the house. I told Cap, ‘I got a window’."

Captain Harold Lessard had 31 years service with the WFPS.

Captain Harold Lessard had 31 years service with the WFPS.

The RIT is called to a scene as soon as the district chief determines a crew is facing a working fire. The RIT’s job is to go into a burning structure and bring out the firefighters in trouble inside.

Several firefighters confided that some of their peers don’t aspire to become officers because they don’t want the responsibility of making the call on the RIT; not so much on deciding when to send in the rescue team, but the decision of not doing so. They never want to face the dreadful decision that the situation is just too dangerous to risk putting more people in peril, of making the call that the firefighters trapped inside were on their own.

One firefighter who was part of the rescue says he avoids ‘rehashing’ that Feb. 4 night; he doesn’t want his neighbours to know he was there, doesn’t want strangers coming up to him to ask for details.

One of the crews fighting the fire was trying to work a ladder into position, but it was tough going in the confined space full of ice and snow.

"They could hear us screaming for help. They knew we were in trouble — the heat and the pain were unbearable," Crowther says.

Lessard was in rough shape, and couldn’t reach the window. "Cap was saying, ‘Too high, too high’. 

Crowther crouched down and tried to lift up Lessard, but the movement exacerbated their predicament by squeezing their outerwear against their skin. "I tried to lean down and lift Cap. It compacted us, it transferred the heat (from their protective gear) onto our arms and abdomens. We both went down and into a pile."

Crowther managed to get Lessard on his knees, half in, half out of the window, but the ladder had frozen and broken. Firefighters were yelling for Crowther to jump.

"I dove through the window, it didn’t matter how high. I fell 16 feet to a wooden deck (cleared of snow). I don’t remember it — they said I got up and jumped into the snow. My partner Scotty Atchison gave me a hug, not realizing I was burnt."

He had been inside the house only for a few minutes but says it felt like forever.

Meanwhile, another firefighter had made it up through the inside of the house to try to help get Lessard out. "Harold was caught in the window. Harold had gone limp, the heat had taken all his energy away," Crowther says.

Funk had managed to dive down the staircase and make it outside, and the RIT had found Wiebe badly injured on the staircase. 

"I remember the feeling of being lifted up," Wiebe says. "Next thing I remember is being outside. I was told my buckles were so hot that they couldn’t open them, they were afraid of burning their fingers.

"The paramedic was holding my head and saying, ‘It’s OK, Ed, it’s OK, you’re out.’

"I woke up eight days later."

Nichols remained unaccounted for. A second RIT went in and saw a boot on the other side of the bed, about four feet away from where Lessard and Crowther were.

"They thought he’d (Nichols) tried to cover himself with a mattress. We didn’t hear anything. He was massively injured."

More crews were arriving from all over the city, some dispatching themselves. There was still a fire to fight and keep from spreading.

One firefighter, who asked not to be named, said off-duty firefighters showed up at fire halls, asking if they could help and putting in a shift on their own time. Not only were so many crews and equipment at work in St. Boniface, but other firefighters elsewhere in Winnipeg had gone home traumatized, he said, and spots had to be staffed around the city. 

"The crews originally on the scene were doing CPR on Capt. Lessard and Capt. Nichols," Crowther says. "I’m being taken over to the ambulance. I laid down in the gear — it felt like I was burning again."

The paramedics knew him and asked if they should call his wife, Joanna. Crowther said no, nor did he want an officer knocking on his door. Instead, Crowther had them get his mother-in-law, who’s a nurse, and his own mother to go over to his house.

"After that, that’s when the drugs kicked in."


The helmets of the fallen firefighters were marched into the public memorial service at the MTS Centre.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / FREE PRESS FILES

The helmets of the fallen firefighters were marched into the public memorial service at the MTS Centre.

Ten days after the fire, there was a public memorial service for Lessard and Nichols at the MTS Centre that attracted thousands of firefighters from across Canada and private citizens. Crowther attended from a secluded vantage point — True North’s Mark Chipman arranged for Crowther to watch privately, the injured firefighter not wanting to divert any attention from the two fire captains.

The Crowther family was just then starting a recovery period, one that continues today.

"They had told us to prepare for two months in hospital; I was out in 17 days. It was close to 11, I guess 10 months, I was off," he says.

There were extensive skin grafts, and Crowther still has nerve damage in one shoulder from his fall, but he otherwise physically escaped the 16-foot fall with just ribs that were sore for the better part of a year.

"As a firefighter, you were never trained to deal with a burn. I’d never seen myself with burns. I was afraid of losing my fingers the first few days. It never really crossed my mind you could get burned. You get such great gear."

Once Crowther was ready to go back to work, he trained by having his mask blacked out and then tried to find his way out of a maze.

"They had no back-to-work policy for a burned firefighter. The anxiety was getting worse — they worked on the why. Some have said to me, they needed me to get back, just so they could see that it could happen," says Crowther. "Some days were good, some were really bad."

Finally, his fought his first fire.

"It was really scary. It was on Alexander, just off Logan, a little tiny house. I went in the back door, I could hardly breathe, I was terrified. I went in, we knocked it down. The guys supported me so much, high-fiving me."


 

Ed Wiebe suffered burns to 70 per cent of his body. His wife, Diane, knew better than most what that meant - she was a researcher in HSC's burn unit.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Ed Wiebe suffered burns to 70 per cent of his body. His wife, Diane, knew better than most what that meant - she was a researcher in HSC's burn unit.

Diane Wiebe had just returned home that Sunday night from St. Boniface Hospital, where her mother had undergone bypass surgery, when her phone rang.

"I got a phone call from one of the officers, that Ed was in an accident. I asked what was burnt — unfortunately, they minimized it," Diane says.

The officer picked the wrong person with whom not to be straightforward. Diane used to work on the burn unit at Health Sciences Centre as a researcher.

In the ER, she immediately asked the attending doctor how much of Ed’s body had been burned: 70 per cent, appalling injuries most people didn’t survive not so many years ago.

"Ed’s burns weren’t flame burns, he was basically cooked," she says.

"Credit goes to the HSC burn team. He had a better chance of survival than at any hospital in North America."

Wiebe was in an induced coma for eight days, and Diane was there when he was brought out of it.

"The first thing he asked me, ‘Am I going to die?’ The second thing, ‘Did anyone else die’?"

Firefighters Ed Wiebe (right) and Alex Forrest at the Manitoba Legislature in 2015 when plans were introduced to first-of-its-kind legislation in Canada for post-traumatic stress disorder coverage.

BORIS MINKEVICH / FREE PRESS FILES

Firefighters Ed Wiebe (right) and Alex Forrest at the Manitoba Legislature in 2015 when plans were introduced to first-of-its-kind legislation in Canada for post-traumatic stress disorder coverage.

Diane didn’t know what to do, but a nurse told her it would be unforgivable if Wiebe heard it first from anyone else.

"If I was hurting this bad, someone else was hurting bad, too," Wiebe says. "Tom Nichols was one of my senior officers when I started in 1988. Harold was mentoring me. I think I just cried, I crumbled.

"I hurt all over. My hands and arms were bandaged, all I could move were my neck and my head."

Diane ventures a smile: "The resident asked me seriously, ‘Did he have hair before’?"

No, that had been long gone before the fire. 

There were four years of skin grafts, therapy, and rehabilitation.

The only parts of Wiebe not burned were on his back and on his shins and feet that his boots had protected. Doctors ‘harvested’ those areas for skin to graft, in turn using thousands of staples to hold the grafts in place. They were later removed, one at a time. The last stage was to amputate fingers on his hand.

"He was off four years. I was off work a year-and-a-half — he was like a newborn, he couldn’t do anything for himself," Diane says. Even now, Wiebe’s skin is as thin as tissue, and he bleeds very easily.

Wiebe always knew he wanted to go back to work, but his physical limitations preclude fighting fires. He works two days a week as a training instructor.

At his training sessions, with both recruits and veterans, Wiebe emphasizes the need to use every available piece of equipment and to keep it in top shape. And even then, things can go wrong. "Shit happens. I’m there to be the voice of reality."

As Diane puts it, "He’s there to scare the shit out of the cocky ones."

He’s lost the fingers on his right hand and has lost movement because his skin is so tight. "What they call the Creep — I’m always stretching the scar tissue," he explains. "The psychological trauma, those dark, intrusive thoughts, are overwhelming. It took a couple of years before I could listen to people talk about their experiences that night."

It also took years, but Wiebe can handle being around a fire now.

"My brain doesn’t function the same way it did before the fire," he laments. "I’ve never gone back into operations. For safety reasons, it’s best I not go back into a situation where I might not make the right decision in the right time frame."

"You haven’t made a full recovery," Diane says.

"And I never will," he replies.

 


Lionel Crowther, his wife, Joanna, daughter, Madison and sons Noah (left) and Nathan.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Lionel Crowther, his wife, Joanna, daughter, Madison and sons Noah (left) and Nathan.

Lionel and Joanna openly acknowledge there have been rocky times for their marriage in the past decade.

They have three kids, two boys and now a daughter, but at the time of the fire, their boys were four and two. At that point, Joanna became Crowther’s caregiver, too.

"There’s no guidebook that says, ‘This is what you do when you have a burn, this is what you tell your wife, this is why he’s acting so weird.’ Joanna knows when there’s a bad day, and my kids do, too," Crowther says. "All of a sudden, you get a blip where you go down again. You almost lose your identity, because you don’t see the person you were before.

"I think about it every day, I lose days because it’s on my mind. I almost lost Joanna."

Says Joanna: "The mental is 100 times harder to deal with than the physical part. Every time he achieved a hurdle, it was another hurdle our kids had to go through."

Two years after the tragedy, the Crowthers went to the annual world conference of burn survivors.

He went as a burn victim, but what they found out was that both are burn survivors.

Crowther met Oscar, a firefighter who’d lost two friends fighting a fire in Stockton, Calif., and who taught Crowther to be a peer supporter for other burn survivors. They started recruiting from other fire departments, the military and the police.

By 2009, Crowther was appointed a burn survivor foundation co-ordinator for Central Canada, one of 16 regions in North America.

"I follow incidents all over North America, we get notifications. We reach out," he says.

Noah has a letter on his bedroom wall from a firefighter thanking him for allowing his dad to help other survivors.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Noah has a letter on his bedroom wall from a firefighter thanking him for allowing his dad to help other survivors.

He and Joanna will jump on a plane, and work with firefighter survivors of horrific, fatal fires. 

"There was a big incident in Delaware this fall, there was an incident in Modesto, Calif., New Year’s Day, firefighters who went through the roof. Charleston, down in South Carolina, they lost nine firefighters."

Every year, the Crowthers take part in a camp in the wilds of Colorado with burned firefighters from all over North America.

"This will be our sixth year this year," he says. "We rent a house, we buy groceries, we cook together, to show them the burns didn’t change anything. 

"I find all the firefighters who go. We get sponsors from all over."

I think about it every day, I lose days because it’s on my mind. I almost lost Joanna"– firefighter Lionel Crowther

One year, a fellow who’d lost his legs was ice-climbing by the end of the week. "One guy lost his left arm, one guy lost his right arm, they share gloves," Crowther smiles. "It just gets bigger and bigger every year.

"You get to come back, you’re guaranteed two years. They ski, they snowboard, they ice-climb with adaptive tools."

This year it’s Feb. 24 to March 4.

Crowther speaks to all the rookie firefighter classes in Winnipeg, and he’s qualified as a senior fire ground instructor. Now he’s training with the hopes of being promoted to lieutenant.

On much of the outside work Crowther does, he paid for himself. "He wants to be sure that what happened to him doesn’t happen to anyone else," Johanna says. "He’s been able to take what happened that night and turn it into something to make sure it doesn’t happen again."

Ed and Diane Wiebe have been to the burn survivor conferences, and Wiebe sits on the board of the Manitoba Firefighters Burn Fund, raising money and talking about overcoming horrific injuries.

"Finding all these people in the burn community has been so inspiring to me," he says. "Despite everything that’s happened to me, I’m doing fairly well."

Wiebe’s determined to do something meaningful and to contribute. "Seeing me come back to work has helped (other firefighters) deal with this as well.

"I’m still able to put on my uniform with pride... pride, and gratitude as well."


Winnipeg firefighters take a moment after laying memorial wreaths at the site of the deadly fire in 2007.

MIKE APORIUS / FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg firefighters take a moment after laying memorial wreaths at the site of the deadly fire in 2007.

Firefighters will hold a private memorial for Harold Lessard and Tom Nichols Feb. 2, two days before the 10th anniversary. They’d like to establish a permanent memorial, a place firefighters can gather to honour those they’ve lost. They’ve been collecting money for 10 years, Crowther says, and have identified a possible site on the legislature ground.

"To forget, is to dishonour them," Diane says.

"The loss of Harold, the loss of Tom, what the families suffered, we care about that," Crowther says. "It’s real. Not being able to get Harold out is devastating to me to this day."

 

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca