Sheila Mattson knew when she woke to a crackling sound the morning of May 15 and saw smoke coming from the construction site adjacent to her Five Corners building that she had to get out.
With her daughter, who just happened to have spent the night, the retired nurse fled her top-floor, two-bedroom unit in her housecoat and runners, grabbing only her glasses, her wallet and her keys on the way out.
At the time, she had no idea that it would be about four weeks before she’d be venturing back inside her home of five years, nor that it would be while wearing a protective suit, and only to salvage what few personal items she could from piles of blackened rubble, under a ceiling that had been replaced with nothing but sky.
“My first thought when I left the building was that we were being evacuated as a precaution,” Mattson recalled Monday. “I did not think that the structure was going to ignite so quickly, and become this big inferno.
“Now, it’s just sort of this horrible sight to look at… you’ve got this horrible open concept, and you can see into your neighbour’s suite.”
It’s been nearly seven weeks since fire ripped through the four-storey Ocean Ridge condominium complex in White Rock’s Five Corners district, changing the lives of the nearly 100 residents who called it home – not to mention that of ground-floor business owners whose shops were also impacted.
Deemed an arson 10 days after the blaze, Sgt. Joel Glen said this week that investigators are “making progress” and “feel that we’re heading in the right direction” with regard to identifying those responsible.
The losses suffered at the hands of the culprits are still being calculated, with items lost ranging from clothing and furniture to irreplaceable photos and sundry mementos.
As the residents continue to wait for word on whether their homes will be repaired or built anew – Monday, evidence of what appeared to point to at least a partial rebuild could be seen at the site – volunteers working with those affected say the work that lies ahead is about so much more than the physical structure.
It’s about rebuilding lives – from finding somewhere to live and replacing basic household items, to getting past the trauma of the fire itself.
Unfortunately, there’s no set agenda for how that looks, nor a precise timeline for how long it will take each person to get there, said Yale Shap, a Peninsula-based counsellor who offered to help during a conversation a few days after the fire with Sources Community Resource Centre’s executive director, David Young.
Sources has been co-ordinating the fire-relief effort, including collection and distribution of cash donations raised in the community, with Sources’ Tammie Schellekens taking on the task of connecting with those impacted, helping to determine their needs and ensuring they’re aware of the services available.
As of last Thursday, residents of 51 of the building’s 60 units had been contacted.
“It’s not that it’s big, it’s that it’s bigger than anything we’ve done before,” Schellekens said of the effort.
Shap said the impact and after-effects of the fire have been, and will continue to be, different for everyone. For some residents, it was a reminder of an earlier life crisis; for others, it hit shortly after the death of a spouse, compounding the grief. For some, it was so traumatic, they have yet to return to the scene.
While many of the residents have been able to recover at least a few items from their homes, others “lost everything.”
“They ended up with a dog in one hand, a child in the other, on the street,” Shap said.
Shap said, in any crisis, the sooner those affected get help or receive support, the better.
“I believe the faster that happens, the more complete the healing is,” Shap said. “Rather than just bad memories of a terrible night… all that begins to shift from horror to a more positive outlook for the future.”
Mattson said she accepted the offer of counselling because she “doesn’t want to be plagued with PTSD for the rest of my life.”
“I want to be able to move forward and enjoy my life,” she said.
She said after the fire she was “quite emotional” at times, particularly when people came up to offer a hug and condolences.
“I just felt I was going to melt,” she said. “I thought, I’ve got to get past this.”
Talking it through was “very, very helpful.”
Shap and Schellekens said the outpouring of community support has also made an immeasurable difference to the victims. Offers of clothing, accommodations and cash were immediate, and continue.
“It’s part of what’s helping them survive,” Shap said.
Schellekens said one man expressed to her that he can feel that people who ask how he is doing genuinely want to know.
Instead of a casual question in passing, “now, people stop and they don’t only ask the question looking right at me, but they hold my hand while I tell them,” Schellekens was told.
“Most people, they’re just so appreciative of how the community has risen to the occasion,” she said.
Shap and Schellekens described the victims as gracious, compassionate and “truly inspiring.”
A free event planned for 4-7 p.m. today (Wednesday) in the parking lot of the Star of the Sea Community Hall aims to celebrate the community support, and help in the healing process.
Schellekens emphasized that none of the funds earmarked for the fire victims is being used to finance the event. Every dollar “goes directly back to the people it’s been raised for.”
As of this week, those dollars total more than $50,000, and more than $45,000 of that has been distributed.
The counseling services are being offered to anyone who was affected by the fire. For information, call 604-542-7594.