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Residents barred from Brampton housing complex after deadly blaze

Spent oxygen tanks sit at the scene of a massive townhouse fire that took the life of a young boy in Brampton, Ont., on June 8, 2014.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

A Brampton housing unit where fire broke out early Sunday morning, and where a 10-year-old boy died in the blaze, is still off-limits to families, some of whom will have nothing to retrieve from the rubble.

The fire, which investigators believe started in a kitchen area of one townhouse in unit 59, quickly spread to adjoining homes in the low-income housing complex on Ardglen Drive, near Kennedy Road South and Queen Street East.

Ten-year-old Nicolas Gabriel was at a sleepover at a friend's house, in the unit where the fire broke out. He was a fourth-grade student at Sir Winston Churchill Public School, whose corridors were empty of students on Monday because it was a P.A. day.

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"He was a very active kid – always playful, always polite. He's going to be missed around here by a lot of kids he used to play with," said Fernando Gomez, a tenant of an evacuated unit who has been living in the complex for six years.

"It's going to take a while to cope with this, because every other year there's a tragedy here," said Mr. Gomez, referring to the death of nine-year-old Kesean Williams, who was shot through the front window of his home in the same complex in January of last year while he watched television.

Out of 300 evacuated from the complex, the majority – about two-thirds – returned to their homes Sunday night, according to Alain Normand, emergency manager for the city of Brampton.

But 18 families in Unit 59, which was heavily damaged by smoke and fire, will not have a home to return to. "Many have gone to friends and family and they're going there until we find a more permanent solution for them," Mr. Normand said.

Five families were using emergency shelters as of Monday, said Shereen Daghstani, Region of Peel spokesperson.

Michael Clark, deputy fire chief for Brampton Fire Services, said the fire "was already fully involved into the first and second floors" when crew members responded at around 3:19 a.m. Sunday morning.

"The flames had broken through the windows, were licking up the walls, and went into the soffits and up to the roof," he said. The roof, which was flat with a slope roof built over top, allowed small pockets of fire to develop, according to officials, which made extinguishing the fire difficult.

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Some residents of the complex have raised concerns about fire alarms not being loud enough. The rental-housing owners are the Wynn Group of Companies.

"If you're upstairs, you can just barely hear some noise," said Alain St. Laurent, a tenant of one of the evacuated units. "Those buildings, when the fire started over there, within five minutes, it was from that end of the roof to another. It was just like a pack of matches."

"If it wasn't for the firemen that were waking us up, we would have still been asleep," said Anne-Marie Lavigne, who lives with Mr. St. Laurent.

Gary Jarrett, officer in charge of Brampton fire investigations, said it is uncertain whether the 18 units, adjoined by a common roof, were up to code. "The town-homes today under building code are required to have fire separations every so many units to stop this very thing from happening. Now, keep in mind, this is an existing building that falls under previous legislation that dates back several decades."

Officer Jarrett said a fire safety inspection of the housing complex, due to "a complaint about the lack of detection in the units" in the past year, showed the smoke detectors in individual homes were working at the time.

"All I can say at this point is, we're going to investigate this. We will have a dialogue with the Wynn family once we have the questions we need to ask them," Mr. Jarrett said.

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An investigation of the fire will be conducted by the Ontario Fire Marshal, Brampton Fire and Emergency Services, Peel Regional Police, and the Office of the Chief Coroner.

The investigation will be "evaluating the building's performance and any factors that may have contributed to the fire spread" and determine whether smoke detectors were working in the unit of origin, said Richard Derstroff, fire investigator with the Ontario Fire Marshal.

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