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‘It destroyed our lives’: Gastown business owners fighting to retrieve essential items after fire

Click to play video: 'Gastown business owners fighting to retrieve essential items after building fire'
Gastown business owners fighting to retrieve essential items after building fire
Several Gastown business owners who survived two years of the pandemic have either lost everything or remain temporarily closed after the devastating fire at the Winters Hotel and as Kristen Robinson reports, some are facing new obstacles as they plan to rebuild their livelihoods. – Apr 17, 2022

Several Gastown merchants who survived two years of the pandemic have either lost everything or remain temporarily closed after fire ripped through a heritage building earlier this month, and those wanting to relaunch their businesses in new locations are now facing another obstacle.

“When I don’t have anything, I don’t know where to start from,” said Neda Pessione of Nika Design.

Neda and Dino Pessione opened their shoe and leather repair shop in 2007 on the ground floor of the Abbott Street building that houses the Winters Hotel.

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When flames broke out on the second residential floor on April 11, Dino rushed to help the upstairs tenants escape while Neda was forced to flee the store without the essential tools of their trade.

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“This was like a bomb went off in the middle of the day,” Pessione recalled.

“It destroyed our lives in a matter of a few hours – everything is gone.”

The gutted building at Water and Abbott streets remains fenced off and guarded by 24/7 security while the city of Vancouver said Water street will be closed to vehicle traffic between Carrall and Abbott streets for at least five weeks.

Click to play video: 'Damaged Gastown building had fire days earlier'
Damaged Gastown building had fire days earlier

Pessione and her husband are fighting to gain access to their retail space in order to grab irreplaceable items needed to relocate their livelihood – including a more than century-old sewing machine, rare hand tools, and customers’ job orders.

“Accessing those tools I have, it will give me hope to be able to add to it and rebuild,” Pessione told Global News on Sunday.

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The Pessiones are not alone.

“I have nothing and everything that I have for my trade is inside the store,” Jason Gallop said.

“It’s distressing not being able to get in there.”

Gallop, a watchmaker who relocated to 207 Abbott Street in March 2020, is also on the outside looking in. The owner of Roldorf & Co. managed to salvage what he could by running in and out three times amid heavy smoke but has since been denied access to the business he’s built up over two decades.

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“I’ve gathered some of my tools that are in there since I started watchmaking when I was 17,” Gallop told Global News.

The devastating fire occurred just one day after Gastown’s first weekend of cruise ship traffic in almost three years.

“We were this close right, this close, to a brighter future,” said Gallop.

Roldorf & Co and Nika Design are among the seven businesses below the hotel that were displaced while several surrounding businesses remain closed.

“We’re devastated by the impact to these folks,” Gastown BIA executive director Walley Wargolet said.

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“There [are] over 60 people whose jobs have been impacted by the loss of these businesses.”

Although it’s another blow, Wargolet said Gastown is resilient and will get through this.

Click to play video: 'Cruise industry returns to Vancouver'
Cruise industry returns to Vancouver

The Gastown BIA has set up a GoFundMe campaign to help its members navigate the loss of revenue, destroyed valuables and merchandise, and urgent needs that may not be covered by insurance.

Pessione has also set up a separate GoFundMe for Nika Design, which she said was uninsured during the fire as it was transitioning to a new insurance.

When asked if businesses will get some access to their units before the building is demolished, Chief Karen Fry of Vancouver Fire Rescue Services said the city will provide an update on the demolition timeline on Tuesday, once staff completes an initial assessment on how to best bring down the structure in a “safe and expeditious way.”

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In an email to one of the affected business owners Sunday, the city’s chief building official said the decision to deny entry into the retail spaces at 203 Abbott was made out of an abundance of caution in the interest of public safety.

Click to play video: 'Social media video shows fire in Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood'
Social media video shows fire in Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood

Saul Schwebs also stated the city did not want to deny access unnecessarily, and he would be meeting with a third-party structural engineer Monday or Tuesday to determine if the site is safe to enter for item retrieval.

If not, Schwebs said he would arrange for affected merchants to meet with the demolition contractor “to discuss how items might be retrieved during the demolition.”

“I feel like my right hand is cut off and I’m bleeding,” said Pessione.

Still, she said they are not going to give up after putting so much love and passion into Nika Design over the last 15 years.

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“It was from the heart for us,” said Pessione,

“We not going to let it end like this.”

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