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'To be homeless, it’s a difficult feeling': Twin sisters speak out after family displaced by fire
TORONTO -- Twenty-two-year-old twin sisters, who were displaced from the apartment their family has called home for the past decade after a deadly fire broke out last week, made an emotional plea for donations while speaking at their younger brother’s elementary school on Friday morning.
“Emotionally, it’s been very tough,” Julia Viana told reporters gathered inside a classroom at Blacksmith Public School, located in the area of Jane Street and Steeles Avenue West, while standing beside her identical twin sister Daniela Viana.
“I mean, we’ve never been through something like this before. To be homeless, it’s a difficult feeling.”
Julia, Daniela, their older brother, their eight-year-old brother, and their parents have been living at a shelter on York University’s campus ever since a fire broke out at their apartment building at 250 Gosford Boulevard on Nov. 15.
The strength of the flames and the smoke provided challenges for emergency crews responding to the fire at the time, Toronto Fire Chief Matthew Pegg said four days after.
Six people had to be extracted from the burning building after the blaze broke out at around 5:30 p.m. and one of those victims was transported to hospital for treatment. Officials later confirmed that firefighters had located the body of a man on an eighth floor balcony. The cause of death was determined to be smoke inhalation, the Office of the Fire Marshall said.
Hundreds of residents were put out of their homes after the five-alarm fire broke out at the complex.
The Viana family’s unit is on the ninth floor of the building. The sisters said it is on the other side of the building and it did not sustain any serious damage in the fire.
‘We get homesick’
Speaking about being displaced from the apartment they have lived in for the past 10 years, Julia Viana said her and her family members have been coping.
“Obviously it has been very difficult,” she said. “We can’t go home after work, we can’t go home after school, turn on the TV, and we get homesick.”
They said the transition has been the most difficult for their younger brother, who is a Grade 3 student at Blacksmith Public School. Their eight-year-old brother is one of 15 students affected by the blaze who attend either Blacksmith Public School or neighbouring St. Augustine Catholic School.
The pair stood at the elementary school asking anyone who can donate backpacks, clothing or food to the young children to get in touch with officials.
“We want to make sure that we do everything and anything that we can to make sure they are clothed,” Ida Li Preti said at the news conference held at the school.
“We’ve opened up our doors at St. Augustine with a clothing drive and within 48 hours the community came together, the schools have all come together, both public and catholic, to support us and to support these families.”
Li Preti said on top of these donations, they “now have to look at the long-term needs,” including a permanent place of residence.
Tragedy brings community together, sisters say
The sisters described their temporary residence at York University as “comfortable” and “not too crowded.”
“It shows you how close a community can get when something tragic happens,” Julia Viana said. “I’ve seen familiar faces in the elevators here and there and now I’m actually getting to know the people, know their stories, we’ve become basically friends.”
“We’re all very close but everyone has their own personal space, which I think is honestly a bonus for everybody because then again you didn’t know the person at first but then with the tables and everything that we do – again, we have a community now.”
“It just shows everybody how supportive we actually can be when it comes to a time like this, which is also very great.”
The 22-year-olds said they have both found nearby jobs while they continue attending school because “life must go on.”
“The first week was very stressful because it was just so fresh – now, it’s the long term,” Daniela Viana said. “Now we need to think about permanent residence because people still need to work, we need to go to school and that’s been an adjustment.”
The sisters said their family will be staying at the shelter for two weeks before they either move to another shelter or find a permanent residence.
“For now it’s still a waiting game,” Daniela Viana said.
Sisters recall ‘shocking’ moments after fire broke out
Daniela Viana was home the evening the fire broke out and she called her twin sister, who was on her way home from work, to detail the tragedy unfolding before her eyes.
“I was in the building when the fire alarm went off, so at first we all thought it was a false alarm and then obviously smelling the smoke and everything we rushed and put our stuff on and then everyone went out to the front,” she said.
“No one knew exactly what was going on until everyone went around the building to the back and that’s when everything started getting into motion because our building was on fire.”
Two days after the blaze broke out, CTV News Toronto obtained a video showing what appears to be a man trapped on a balcony as the fire raged around him. People can be heard calling out, encouraging him to jump.
The 22-year-old described seeing the helpless man struggling as “very tragic and very shocking.” She said she could see his silhouette behind the balcony before he collapsed.
Cause of fire not yet determined
On Monday, officials said they are “excavating the unit of origin” and working to determine the cause of the blaze.
At the time, Ontario Fire Marshal investigators Rick Derstroff said there is “no specific timeline” as to when displaced residents will be able to return to their homes.
The Viana sisters said they have been allowed to book an appointment for Friday evening to access their unit and retrieve some of their belongings.
“They allow you to go in with a hard hat and safety shoes,” Daniela Viana said. “They allow you 30 minutes to get as much stuff as you can in bags that you can take down the stairs because the elevators are broken.”
Some of the units more affected by the blaze remain inaccessible to residents at this time.