TORONTO — Two firefighters fell from a neighbouring roof into a burning building in a heart-stopping moment early Monday, sparking an intense 30-minute hunt through dense smoke to find and rescue them.
The “mayday” call prompted a frantic search from rapid intervention teams, who were unable to hear one of the men even though he was calling for help.
“It was a very intense time,” said fire Chief Bill Stewart.
“It’s a very horrific situation for firefighters on scene to locate them in the smoke and extricate them from the building.”
The pair, who were not badly hurt, were finally located on the upper floor and taken to hospital for observation before being sent home.
At its height, 32 fire trucks and 125 firefighters responded to the pre-dawn six-alarm blaze in an empty heritage building in downtown Toronto.
The fire shut a stretch of Yonge Street — one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares — and temporarily disrupted transit. Still, the impact was not severe given that many people were off work and businesses closed in lieu of New Year’s Day.
The blaze also forced nearby Ryerson University to close for the day, although the student residences were reopening Monday as planned.
The building prompted headlines last April when its facade collapsed onto a normally busy sidewalk, sparking fears that pedestrians had been trapped under the rubble. However, no one was hurt in that incident.
Most of the rest of the wall came down with Monday’s fire.
There was no word on the cause of the blaze, with investigators still unable to get a good look at the scene.
Capt. Mike Strapko, with the fire department, said “multiple structural collapse” made it impossible for firefighters to get inside the building to deal with the stubborn blaze.
“We can’t get in there. There’s obviously fire hiding under the floor, between the walls,” Strapko said.
Aerial trucks poured water onto the top of the building in an effort to contain the blaze. Thick smoke spewed from the site over the city.
“We have a deep-seated fire because of the roof structure caving in,” Stewart said.
The neighbouring roof from which the two firefighters fell into the “hot zone” was slippery because of all the water but it was not clear why they lost their footing, he added.
At least one of the men fell about five metres.
In all, three fighters were sent to hospital as a precautionary measure while a fourth was treated on the scene for a minor injury.
One of the injured firefighters hurt his back.
“He’ll certainly be sore,” Stewart said.