Cassandra Whitmarsh was just waking up in her room 113 at the Econo Lodge City Centre Inn Wednesday morning when she heard yelling and screaming and a call of “fire” coming from an adjacent room in the downtown motel.
She looked out the window, saw a shadow of smoke, then opened the door into a deadly hallway inferno.
“The entire staircase was engulfed in flame, it was like the sun hitting your face,” said Whitmarsh. “It was like Dante’s Peak, the fire was completely back in the courtyard. It was so hot, and so close.”
Whitmarsh rushed back into her room to wake up her 10-year-old son Kyler. She managed to grab a pair of pants and shirt for him to wear but all their other belongings were left behind.
“As soon as we got out the door I just pointed and told him to run that way,” she said. “It was kind of like it was chasing us. It was right behind people.”
The fire killed three people.
“We didn’t know three people had died until I talked to my friend,” said Whitmarsh. “It’s crazy. I just hope it wasn’t a mother and child because I did hear it could be. It’s pretty sad.”
Whitmarsh’s room was three rooms away from the room where it’s believed the victims were at the time of the fire. She said she did not hear a fire alarm to warn her or other occupants of the motel, which she said was close to being fully occupied. As she was running out of the building, she saw a man who had been banging on the doors of the rooms to get people to leave. He had his arm around another man who had a partially-amputated leg to help him escape the building.
“That one single guy got everybody out, he probably saved 10 people,” Whitmarsh said. “He was the only one who went back in. He was the one screaming ‘fire’ banging on everyone’s doors. There was no alarm. Nothing. The only thing I heard was glass breaking.
“Kyler was very concerned I wasn’t right behind him because I grabbed the clothes. I just told him to go and he kept looking back at me. ‘Are you coming?’ He’s very protective of his mommy. I just think, what if I had gone outside for a cigarette. I’m so thankful I got out of there with him but you just think about the what-ifs.”
The fire, at 910 Victoria St., broke out at about 8:53 a.m. Wednesday and Prince George Fire Rescue crews from No. 1 hall only a few blocks away were on the scene immediately after the 9-1-1 call went out.
RCMP have deemed the cause of the fire as suspicious and are continuing their investigation. Police have asked for members of the public who might have been at the scene or who have captured video of the motel between the hours of 7 and 9 a.m. on Wednesday to submit those clips to the RCMP.
“We’ve had lots of people coming forward, which is great, and we continue to encourage anyone who has images to let us know,” said Prince George RCMP spokesman Cpl. Craig Douglass.
Douglass said the identities of the three victims has not been released by the BC Coroner’s office.
“At this point I’d be remiss to say anything without consent from the coroner,” said Douglass. “I don’t think it’s a secret that they passed away at the scene.
“Arsons are notoriously difficult to investigate. A lot of the evidence gets burned, so it’s going to take time. We’ll see where the investigation takes us.”
The spread of the fire and the extent of the damage suggests an accelerant was used. While Douglass would not confirm that, Whitmarsh is convinced the fire was not an accident.
“It was way too fast,” she said. “There’s no way it wasn’t deliberate. it was instant. If you don’t have an accelerant, fires usually go from room to room progressively. But this, you open the door and see that.
“It’s especially terrifying when you open the door and the fire is already more than started and nobody had any idea. The fire department hadn’t even been called.”
Whitmarsh is from Smithers and had just relocated to Prince George with her son a week-and-a-half ago. All her possessions were in the room, which was destroyed by the fire. She and her son have found alternate accommodations at the Fraser Inn on Queensway. She said social services staff have been extremely helpful and caring and have provided her a cell phone to replace the one that was burnt in the fire. Kyler lost his toys and his Lego building blocks in the fire, while Cassandra says she can’t replace a shirt, her only remaining possession of her father, who died 11 years ago.
“Everything we owned was in there, we were just staying there two or three weeks until we got another place, because it’s hard to find housing here,” said Whitmarsh.
A Go Fund Me page has been set up to help Whitmarsh and her son replace some of their lost possessions. If you would like to donate, go to: https://bit.ly/2OhqTPE.