West Lethbridge fire leaves several seniors homeless, many more displaced

About 140 seniors were evacuated after a fire broke out at the Gardens at West Highlands retirement home on Tuesday. Photo courtesy: Vince Proctor

It was a terrifying afternoon for almost 150 Lethbridge seniors who were forced to flee their burning retirement home on Tuesday.

Gardens at West Highlands resident Jane Wilkins was about to turn on her TV when she was told to get out.

“Somebody hollered ‘this place is on fire, get out of it,'” Wilkins said. “I didn’t even take my purse, I grabbed my dog and got the heck out.”

For Autumn Woods, the cook at the retirement home, it was a shift like no other.

“All of a sudden the fourth floor was on fire and we had to get everybody out, so I started running down the hallways and knocking on doors, getting everybody out, making sure everyone was OK,” Woods said. “It was my first time in a burning building and my heart was racing the entire time.”

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Just outside, Kara Seaborn was doing the landscaping on the property when she assigned herself a new task.

“I heard the bang and I saw the smoke and the fire and I called 911 and went running into the building, started getting people out,” Seaborn said.

The help was much needed in a burning building occupied by many with limited mobility and no elevator access due to the fire.

“It was scary because I couldn’t manage the stairs very well, I had to be carried,” resident Marietta Stangroom said.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which is next door to the residence, opened its doors to shelter about 140 seniors forced from their homes. A group of missionaries was undergoing safety training at the time. Their session was cut short as many went over to the retirement home to help.

“I grabbed a fire extinguisher off the wall in case I had to use it to put myself out if I got on fire but I went in and just started going into rooms and pulling people out,” Salt Lake City-based trainer Joe Paul said.

Lethbridge Fire says a quarter of the building sustained damage and at least three apartments are heavily damaged by the fire. However, they believe everyone made it out safely. The cause is still under investigation.

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“We deployed our entire city which would have been close to 35 firefighters,” said Roy Pollmuller, the deputy chief of strategic services.

It’s unknown how long residents will be displaced. In the meantime, some seniors say they will be staying with family members, while others are being taken care of by the Red Cross.

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