With ashen debris raining down on his weary head, the timbers of the engulfed Wild Rose Manor loudly cracking behind him, Jim Harrison walked barefoot onto Windsor Crescent shaking his head.
“I’ve never seen anything go up that fast in my life, never in my life. I can’t believe how fast that thing went up! What is the building made of — sawdust?” said Harrison, his face and bare arms marked with soot.
Forty-five minutes earlier, Harrison and dozens of other residents had been in the three-storey apartment building on the southwest side of Penhold. The 68-year-old had been napping around 5:40 p.m. Thursday when the smell of smoke woke him up.
He looked out his first floor window and saw white billowing smoke, which he mistook simply for mist at first.
“Then I realized it turned a dark brown. I ran out on the patio and the whole goddamn side of the building was on fire,” said Harrison.
As smoke filled his apartment, he ran out, grabbing nothing. No shoes, no jacket, no wallet, no keys, no phone.
“It went up so quick man, I didn’t have the chance to go back and get anything.”
Christine Howard was one floor above Harrison and directly above the blaze, which started on the ground floor of the building’s east side, facing Hwy 2A. While at least one person reported hearing an explosion, Howard, sitting on her couch, simply noticed her living room become dark.
“My apartment was black. I opened the (patio) door and the flames were up on the balcony. I ran out into the hall, set the alarms off, started banging. Ran back in, grabbed my coat, and the flames were looking at me,” said Howard, 52.
She called the fire department and ran out of the building, without a brace for the torn meniscus in her left knee. She got out and watched as the fire quickly engulfed the whole rectangular building, but she could not immediately locate her son and daughter-in-law, who lived one floor above her.
With the flames having shot up and the third floor collapsing first, “I thought they were gone,” she said. The couple — Howard’s daughter-in-law is due to give birth in two weeks — did get out. Then they all watched as the building came down completely, the final piece falling around 6:30 p.m.
Later, gathered with other residents and community members at the town’s Memorial Hall, she looked around and could not see one of her second floor neighbours, who she said had a bad back that she worried would have made it difficult for him to get out in time. Late into the night, Penhold fire chief Jim Pendergast said that not all residents were accounted for.
It was not clear how many residents lived in the apartment complex. Howard estimated that there were 18 units; the Canadian Red Cross said the building contained 50 units.
Pendergast said two residents were transported to hospital with injuries, though he did not know the severity of the injuries. Howard said some pets died in the blaze.
Pendergast said the investigation into what caused the fire will begin this afternoon. Firefighters from Penhold, Red Deer County, and Innisfail all responded to the call, received at 5:42 p.m. By the time fire crews arrived, he said, the building was “fully involved.”
The fire did not spread to any other buildings, though Pendergast said there was minor damage to three cars parked nearby. Kevin Wilton was in his fourplex across the street when he first saw the plumes of black smoke. He said one neighbour had to douse a small fire that had spread to a big evergreen near his house.
Howard said the Wild Rose Manor was a 39-year-old building. She had only lived in it since November.
Hundreds of locals spilled out onto nearby streets and Hwy 2A, which was closed to traffic, to watch the massive blaze. Later, they turned out in force to deliver relief supplies to Memorial Hall. By 7:30, there were piles of blankets, clothes, toys, food and water for the residents affected.
The Red Cross put out a release late in the evening saying its volunteers were registering the evacuated residents and providing support.
Howard said many residents have pets that survived the fire and will need somewhere to stay in the immediate future.