The Kerr fire

The Kerr fire

#1 The Kerr Block Burns

The new year was less than a week old when the year’s biggest story broke.



The new year was less than a week old when the year’s biggest story broke.

In the early hours of January 6, fire began in the basement of the century-old Kerr Apartments, and quickly consumed the entire three-storey building.

Amazingly, no tenants were hurt, although several pets died. Firefighters spent all night dealing with a blaze that chief Simon Grypma called “extremely difficult.”

“Both the temperature and the wind really hampered our firefighting attack because our visibility was pretty well zero,” he said.

Two firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation and a third for hypertension.

The approximately 80 displaced residents, meanwhile, were evacuated to the Capitol Theatre overnight, then put up in local hotels, and finally moved to the Villa Motel while they searched for new accommodation.

“We just panicked,” Carol Taylor, one of the victims, told the Star outside the New Grand Hotel, where she and her teenage children were staying.

“I grabbed my son’s urn — it was all I could think of. He passed away two years ago at 17.”

A committee was struck to help meet the former Kerr residents’ needs, with the assistance of many agencies and social services, including the Red Cross, Salvation Army, City of Nelson, and Regional District of Central Kootenay.

Numerous fundraisers collectively raised over $70,000, while a massive one-day drive filled the old Movie Gallery location on Vernon Street with more household goods than residents could use.

Investigators, meanwhile, had their work cut out, as tons of rubble covered the fire’s origin point. Once they finally gained access, they could only conclude it was not deliberately set. Officially, the cause went down as undetermined.

At that point, the building’s fate was still an open question.

Although the Kerr was on the city’s heritage register, that didn’t afford it protection from demolition. While the stone walls looked solid at a glance, an engineer’s report said preserving them as part of a rebuild wasn’t feasible.

And so an excavator moved in one day in June and began knocking them down. The date stone and entrance arch were saved for possible inclusion in a future project.

The site remains a fenced-off pit, its prospects unknown.

In May, a tree was planted in Lakeside Park to recognize the groups and individuals who responded to the disaster.

Dave Sprague, the tenants’ representative on the unmet needs committee, who devoted all his energies to helping his former neighbours find homes, said he was touched by the community response.

Mayor John Dooley echoed those sentiments.

“That’s the Nelson I know and love and am honored and proud to be the mayor of,” he said. “It’s a community that meets the needs of those in desperate straits, not only at the time but going forward.”