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Cause of tower inferno still undetermined

Guy Quenneville
Northern News Services
Published Friday, May 28, 2010

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - "There's all kinds of rumours about what caused it.

Some people are saying it was a guy using a barbecue," said Daryl Ressler, a pilot for Great Slave Lake Helicopters, as he manoeuvred a Eurocopter AS350 aircraft over the charred wreckage of the top floor of the Coast Fraser Tower Wednesday afternoon.

NNSL photo/graphic

Yellowknifers witnessed a spectacular scene Monday afternoon as a Great Slave Helicopters aircraft repeatedly flew over the Coast Fraser Tower, dumping a total of 3,500 gallons of Great Slave Lake water and extinguishing the fire that broke out on the building's 14th floor. The cause of the fire is not yet known. - Jennifer Geens/NNSL photo

"There was no barbecue," said Gerda Groothuizen - Ressler's passenger and deputy fire chief for the city of Yellowknife - into her headset's communication device.

As Groothuizen told Yellowknifer moments before the fly-over, the investigation into the Monday afternoon fire on the 14th floor of the 52 Street condo and hotel tower is ongoing, with a fire expert from Red Deer now on the case.

View exclusive video of the blaze

But while the exact cause of the fire remains a mystery, the area where the blaze began is not.

"The fire did start outside on the balcony on the 14th floor just outside the meeting room," said Groothuizen. "The only access to that floor is restricted access. People from the rest of the building could not gain access to that. Only the front desk has keys."

The fire department began receiving several calls about the fire on its emergency line at around 3:41 p.m. on Monday. Shortly thereafter, a total of 29 Yellowknife firefighters - some on-call, others full-time - arrived on scene.

Given the height of the building, ladders were not an option, which meant a long hike to the top floor, said Groothuizen.

"Climbing 14 floors wearing 70 pounds of gear and carrying more gear - try doing it sometime!" she said.

Unable to drag hoses to the top floor, the department instead plugged a pumper truck into the building, which pumped water to a hose on the 13th floor. While Coast Fraser staff had already evacuated people out of the building, "We also had to go to each suite to make sure the building was (fully) evacuated," said Groothuizen.

No one was injured during the incident. The fire department rescued one cat and one dog from apartments on the 13th floor, she said.

"They were never in any danger," said Groothuizen. "We just got them because the owners were concerned."

The building does not have sprinklers, which may have helped battled the fire, she said.

When the fire began to spread on top of the 14-storey structure, the fire department called Great Slave Helicopters for help.

As it happened, at the time of the department's call, Gord Bean, chief pilot for the company, and Kerry Fodie, another pilot for the company, were conducting exercises west of the Yellowknife airport using the same water bucket system that would quickly extinguish the hotel fire after 10 drops totalling 3,500 gallons of water drawn from Great Slave Lake.

While the company has much experience in battling forest fires, "That was the first time I ever dropped water in that kind of environment," said Bean.

The cost of the water drop was approximately $4,000, said John Curran, marketing manager for Discovery Air, which owns Great Slave Helicopters.

The helicopter company is donating the entire amount to the Canadian Fallen Firefighters Fund, added Curran.

with files from Mike W. Bryant

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