HALIFAX — Seven children, all members of a Syrian refugee family, died early Tuesday in a fast-moving house fire described as Nova Scotia’s deadliest blaze in recent memory.
The children ranged in age from about three months to the mid-teens, according to a woman who lives next door in the suburban Spryfield neighbourhood.
A man and woman who escaped the fire remained in hospital Tuesday afternoon, the man with life-threatening injuries. The woman was expected to survive.
In a brief interview from the hospital, Imam Wael Haridy of the Nova Scotia Islamic Community Centre said the Syrians — whose family name is Barho — had fled that country’s civil war.
“We’re here in hospital with a desperate mother who lost seven of her kids,” he said, noting that officials are conducting DNA tests to confirm identities before they can proceed with a traditional Islamic burial process.
“She’s saying to us, ‘Am I going to get my children back?’ … It’s so hard. It’s so sad.”
Many people from Halifax’s tight-knit Muslim community had gathered at the hospital, he said.
“People want to try to help, but how can we … how can we provide her with anything?” said Haridy. “It’s a shock. It’s a tragedy.”
The family is among the 1,795 Syrian refugees who have come to Nova Scotia in recent years, including 345 privately sponsored refugees.
Halifax Fire Deputy Chief Dave Meldrum told reporters it was the deadliest fire anyone could remember in the East Coast province.
“Words fail when children are taken from us too soon, especially in circumstances like this,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a tweet.
“My heart goes out to the survivors of the horrible fire in Halifax this morning, and the loved ones who are mourning this tremendous loss.”
Danielle Burt, who lives next door to the Barhos on Quartz Drive, said she heard a loud bang and a woman screaming just after 12:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Burt fled the house with her four children and saw the parents outside in a harrowing scene.
“The mother was on the grass, praying I guess, bowing her hands down, and pulling on my husband’s arm to call 911,” said Burt, her voice breaking.
“She said the kids were inside and the dad was sitting on the steps. I think he had gone back in because he was really burnt. It was just awful.”
Burt said her kids had become good friends with the Barhos children.
“They were just over at our house yesterday,” she said. “It’s just something out of a horror movie that you just never would wish on anybody.”
Rich Farrell, who lives down the street, said he and other neighbours ran up to the house as soon as the fire broke out to see if they could help. First responders were not yet on scene.
“It’s so frightening but in the space of 30 seconds, it went from what looked like a little bit of flame to the whole thing just becoming engulfed,” said Farrell, standing on his porch on a bitterly cold, sunny day.
“You can’t say for sure what happened, but it makes you think about fire safety and what you might be able to do to protect your family.”
The Barhos have been in Canada almost two years, Imam Abdallah Yousri of the Ummah Mosque and Community Centre in Halifax said.
Yousri said the family was from Raqqa, Syria, and originally settled in Elmsdale, north of Halifax. The family moved to Halifax three months ago, he said.
Yousri said the funerals would likely be held Wednesday or Thursday.
“Our entire municipality is heartbroken and our thoughts are with the loved ones of the family,” Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said in a tweet.
Jennifer Watts, the CEO of the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, said in an interview that staff members who worked directly with the family teaching English and providing services are heartbroken by the deaths.
“It is very, very sad this has happened … for the Syrian community here and the wider community in Halifax,” she said in a telephone interview.
She said the Barhos came to Canada from Syria after being privately sponsored by a Nova Scotia group and they were using the centre’s services.
“It’s shocking and very sad. It’s had an impact on our clients who knew them and on our staff who were working with them,” she said.
Doug Hadley, a spokesman for the Halifax Regional Centre for Education, said four of the children attended schools in the area — two at Central Spryfield Elementary and two at Rockingstone Heights.
“This is a tremendously difficult day for both school communities,” he said in an emailed statement.
“We have additional staff in place at both schools to provide support to students. They will provide support on site for as long as necessary.”
The home, which was extensively damaged in the blaze, is situated in a newly built residential neighbourhood.
A neighbour who did not want to be identified told The Canadian Press she was startled awake by screams.
“We heard horrible screams and then got up and saw the flames,” she said. “It was horrible. We called 911 but it took a long time to get through because apparently everyone was calling 911 at the same time.”
The fire spread very quickly as they watched, she said.
“It was really scary,” she said.
“I was nervous it was going to hit the house next door but it didn’t. And then the fire crews finally got here, but there were flames shooting out the front of the house, like shooting out the windows. It was horrible.”
When Meldrum was asked why a fire would spread so quickly through a new home, he declined to speak about the nature of the fire in question.
But in general terms, he said: “New homes are built with light-weight construction. Once fire barriers are penetrated, rapid fire spread is possible in new construction.”
Meldrum said he couldn’t comment on whether the home was supplied with natural gas or if it had a barbecue.
Halifax District Fire Chief Mike Blackburn said the fire was very heavy when they arrived, but firefighters were able to “knock it down” quickly. He suggested firefighters were deeply affected by what they saw inside the home.
“They’ll process this over time but it’s very difficult and it’s not going to get any easier,” said Blackburn.
Watts said the immigrant services association was providing trauma counselling to friends and people shaken by the tragedy.
“This is a moment for all of us in our communities to think about reaching out to immigrants and newcomers who don’t have all the family and friends in the community and building those relationships … so that people don’t feel alone and disconnected when something like this happens,” she said.
— With files from Brett Bundale, Keith Doucette, Michael Tutton and Michael MacDonald
Aly Thomson, The Canadian Press