TDSB suing City of Toronto, fire department and province for $90M over devastating York Memorial fire

BT Toronto | posted Thursday, May 6th, 2021

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is launching a lawsuit against the City of Toronto and Toronto Fire Service (TFS) for $90 million over the York Memorial Collegiate Institute fire that severely damaged the school in May of 2019.

The Ontario government, Ontario Fire Marshall and the Toronto Police Services Board are also named in the statement of claim.

The statement of claim says the scene was not put under a proper fire watch, leading to a second and much larger fire over 24 hours after the first blaze started. It also claims the TFS “failed to undertake reasonable, or any, steps, to ensure that the fire had been extinguished, with no possibility of rekindling.”

It says an overhaul of the building, which is defined in the lawsuit as the activity that makes sure the fire is completely out, was inadequate, including that only one thermal imaging camera (TIC) was used to look for heat signatures despite access to more than 20.

The Ontario Fire Marshall on the scene also noted the classroom below the auditorium, where the fire began, was “unusually warm.”

“No thermal imaging scanning of this room was undertaken at any time, nor was any overhaul or further investigation undertaken in this room by any of the Toronto Police Service (TPS), TFS or the OFM,” claimed the lawsuit.

Another claim in the lawsuit is that there was a July 15, 2019 meeting between Toronto Fire Chief Matthew Pegg and the Ontario Fire Marshall (OFM), which is headed by his brother Jon Pegg, amid concerns of the potential liability for the OFM and TFS.

“The final report of the OFM Report was drafted so as to downplay, mislead, conceal and suppress evidence of negligence and gross negligence on the part of the TFS and OFM,” reads the statement of claim.

Emergency crews were first called to the school for a two-alarm fire around 2:15 p.m. on May 6 and found flames visible from the second floor.

The fire was extinguished and two people, including a firefighter, were taken to hospital with minor injuries, according to paramedics.

Following the incident, a fire watch was put into effect. TDSB security services were called in to guard the area until Fire Marshal officers could arrive to do a preliminary assessment in the morning.

The person left to conduct a “fire watch” was TDSB security detail who the lawsuit claims did not have proper training. The security guard was instructed by the OFM to sit outside in his vehicle and “pay attention to the windows directly below the auditorium,” for any signs of smoke, claimed the lawsuit.

“None of the TFS, TPS or OFM personnel made inquiries of the security guard as to whether he had any training or the equipment necessary to conduct a proper fire watch,” read the statement of claim.

A new security guard took over for him around 10:30 p.m. and the first security guard reiterated the instructions from the OFM.

The new security guard entered the building to use the washroom between 1 and 1:30 a.m. when he noticed a “bit of a ‘haze’ inside the hallway leading to the auditorium,” but assumed it was due to lack of ventilation. At around 3:15 a.m., he saw a flicker of light and immediately called TFS.

Firefighters arrived on the scene around 3:30 a.m. and by that time, flames and heavy smoke began once again billowing out of the auditorium. It took over 24 hours to completely extinguish the six-alarm blaze.

The fire caused much of the roof to collapse, along with some of the exterior brick facade along the upper portion of the building. The damage was estimated to be approximately $90 million.

The Ontario Fire Marshal determined the fires, which were considered to be the same event, were “accidental.” The cause of the blaze was never determined, but it was confirmed it wasn’t deliberately set.

Shortly after the Fire Marshall’s report was released in August of 2019, Mayor John Tory said there were still questions left unanswered surrounding the fire watch.

Tory said, according to the report, the individual placed on fire watch saw smoke at 1:24 a.m., but the fire department wasn’t called until 3:24 a.m.

“By the time the two hours had passed, according to the report, a huge amount of fire had taken root underneath the floor and the auditorium and then became the major fire that we saw in the ‘second episode’,” the mayor said at the time.

Tory also said they don’t have a plan in place to conduct a review of the Fire Marshal’s report, but “clearly, there are questions even arising out of a thick, and a professional report of this, that are unanswered at this time.”

TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said they were left with no choice, but to take legal action.

“The TDSB will continue to rebuild York Memorial Collegiate Institute regardless of the outcome of this legal proceeding,” read the statement from Bird. “In the meantime, our focus remains on supporting the 900 students and staff that were sadly displaced by the fire two years ago.”

The City of Toronto released a statement saying city staff fully cooperated in the investigation of the fires and they took all appropriate steps to preserve evidence.

“Allegations in the claim that suggest otherwise are patently untrue and irresponsible,” read the statement.

“It is unconscionable that the TDSB and its insurers would impugn the integrity of Fire Chief Matthew Pegg and other Toronto Fire Services staff in this manner.”

The city says they plan to file a statement of defence with the courts and “looks forward to vigorously defending against these allegations.”

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

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