By Greg Nesteroff
Ted Meyers awoke after midnight to a smoke-filled room and the sounds of screams and blaring sirens.
The 13 year old and his brothers Pat, 11, and Edward, 14, were in their apartment on the third floor of Nelson’s Strathcona Hotel, at the corner of Victoria and Stanley streets. It was May 27, 1955. Their mother was working late at the Cameo Cafe and hadn’t yet returned to the hotel, their home for the past three months.
Ted yelled to his brothers: “The place is on fire!”
Pat ran to the open bedroom window and looked down to see horrified onlookers watching heavy smoke pour from the building.
They knew their friend, Rudy Symington, 10, was alone two doors down and across the hall. Pat pulled the fire alarm and he and Ted tried to open Rudy’s door but it was locked. They banged on it until smoke in the hallway became unbearable, and they returned to their room — where they discovered Ed had gone back to sleep. They shook him awake again.
Someone outside their kitchen window was crying for help. Ted knew this spot well because in the previous few days the brothers had gone out the window to a landing and climbed a ladder to investigate repairs underway on the roof.
Without thinking, Ted jumped through the closed window and landed beside a man looking for a way off the landing. Ted said he knew a route, and both climbed the ladder to the roof. From high above Stanley Street, they yelled to firefighters below. The man disappeared for a few moments, then returned to say he’d found a way off and insisted Ted follow him.
Ted hesitated, believing the fire department’s ladder would soon come for him. But the man grabbed his arm and pulled him to the far back corner, then onto a lower roof, then safely onto the ground. Ted never saw the man again.
Back inside, Ed grabbed Pat and led him out the window and down a ladder that served as a fire escape between the bay windows of their apartment and the one across the hall.
Pat went first. They’d used this ladder before to avoid walking down to the street, not realizing they were conducting their own fire drill. The bottom rung was a long way from the ground. Pat jumped and a firefighter caught him. Ed followed.
The boys were led across the street to the Royal Canadian Legion, where they were reunited with Ted and their distraught mother, who had been searching for them.
Ted spent the night in the hospital being treated for smoke inhalation and a few cuts suffered from jumping through the window.
Pat recalls being given a blanket by the Red Cross with orders not to take the tag off of it. “For years whenever I used that blanket, I was terrified that somebody would come into my bedroom looking to see if I still had that tag on,” he says.
Within an hour, the hotel was reduced to rubble. While 41 people made it out alive, six others were not as fortunate.
• John Thomas Price, 89, a retired forest ranger, lived on the top floor. He was deaf, suffered from arthritis, and had trouble getting down the stairs.
• Harumi Shinmoto, 21, from Kaslo, worked at the Bank of Commerce. She woke her brother Yoshi up and he escaped safely. But it was thought she went back into the building to look for him.
• Gertrude Ellen Edey, 69, and Margaret Helen Sinclair, 73, were both widows and mothers.
• Quentin MacDonald, a carpenter, 45, had already experienced unimaginable tragedy. Ten years earlier, he accidentally ran over and killed his four-year-old son.
And poor Rudy Symington. He was living in the Strathcona after losing his Harrop home to fire a few months earlier. He’d probably already succumbed to smoke when the Meyers brothers were pounding on his door.
For the Nelson fire department, the Strathcona blaze was both their darkest and finest hour. It remains the deadliest disaster in the city’s history.
The hotel, built in 1891, burned once before in 1938. No one was hurt that time, but the top storey was destroyed — a harbinger of worse things to come.
By 1955, the hotel was mostly a seniors home, although it did have some young people and families staying there, like the Meyers boys and their mother.
The fire’s cause was never officially determined and a coroner’s jury didn’t attach any blame, but the origin was traced to the ground floor. A relief committee raised over $11,000 for the victims.
Today the Strathcona’s site is home to the police station and library.
Brothers and sisters
The Meyers brothers lost everything in the Strathcona fire except the pajamas they were wearing. They stayed at their aunt’s home at the top of the Stanley Street for a few days, then moved into a house on Houston Street.
Within a few years, they left town one by one. Ed became an equipment operator and mine supervisor. Ted joined the Navy and learned steam engineering, then went into the pulp industry and worked as a pipefitter, gasfitter, and supervisor.
Pat became a pressure welder and project manager for maintenance and construction. Today he lives in Quesnel and still does some contract work. Ed is retired in Chilliwack while Ted retired to Campbell River.
But you don’t soon forget escaping a burning building.
“Over the years we often talked about how fortunate we were,” says Ted, now 77.
“I recall Ted’s heroic efforts to warn his brothers and Rudy as well as his efforts on the roof,” adds Pat, 75. “It has stayed with me all my life and been the source of pride for me and an example to follow.”
The brothers each returned to Nelson individually over the years, but had not been back together until last year, when they decided it was time to formally thank the fire department.
This month, more than 64 years after the Strathcona fire, they visited again for an extraordinary ceremony organized by Assistant Chief Mike Daloise and dispatcher Heather Slack.
Pat addressed the entire fire department, including several young auxiliaries who only recently joined. He called them brothers and sisters — for in a bit of real-life poetry, he and Ted became firefighters themselves.
Ted was a founding member of the Malaspina department near Powell River. Pat has belonged to the Quesnel fire department for 47 years, including 18 years of active service, and rose to the rank of captain. The Strathcona blaze, while not Pat’s only reason for joining, was “a good part of it.”
As he spoke, he pointed to large pictures of the fire behind him.
“I was looking for a word to describe the men who were there that night and how I felt about it,” he said. “Heroism and heroes didn’t seem to cut it. It was much deeper than that. The only word I can use is valor. The men who showed their valor that night has credited this fire department for its entire existence.”
Ted added: “There is no possible way we can express our gratitude to motivate people like you who dedicate yourselves to the safety of others. However, we do want you to know we are here because of people like you. We do appreciate it and will never forget it.”
When retired chief Simon Grypma started his career as a Nelson firefighter in 1976, no reminders of the Strathcona could be found in the fire hall. In stark contrast to today, where a museum attached to the hall recounts the department’s history, no photos were then on display.
Grypma and his colleagues watched newsreel footage of massive blazes elsewhere in the world, but scoffed: it couldn’t happen here, they thought. Furthermore, while fire prevention was not an unknown concept, some firefighters felt it was unwise to overdo it. After all, if there are no fires, you might not have a job.
But one night in the alarm room, veteran firefighter Hans Lehrke told a wide-eyed Grypma about the Strathcona fire.
“It changed my whole mentality and attitude,” he says. “It was the most amazing and profound [realization]. The fact that so many people died made me think ‘how can we do better?’”
It was the beginning of an odyssey for Grypma that culminated with the 2011 Kerr block fire. Similarities to the Strathcona fire were unmistakable: both were old, multi-storey apartment blocks on Victoria Street. Both fires began in the middle of the night while dozens of residents slept. Both buildings were destroyed — but in Kerr’s case, no human lives were lost.
“It was one of the saddest days of my career when I saw the building burn,” Grypma said. “But it was one of the happiest days of my career that nobody, not even a firefighter was injured.”
Photos and newspaper clippings about the Strathcona tragedy can now be seen at the hall. The brothers gave current Chief Len MacCharles a plaque that will be added to the display. It reads:
Nelson BC Fire Hall
We are alive to thank you
Because you were there
Strathcona Hotel Fire
May 27, 1955
The Meyers Brothers
Edward Ted and Pat
MacCharles marvelled at it all: “Can you imagine the impact this fire, with both its tragedies and miracles, had on this community and how long it must have lasted?”
‘It was surreal’
There was further poignancy to the ceremony. While the Meyers brothers are among the last of those who were staying at the Strathcona the night it burned, at least four men who helped put the fire out are also still alive.
Two were unable to receive the brothers’ thanks in person: Hans Lehrke lives in Nanaimo and sent his regrets. Rolf Reich lives in Chilliwack. Both were staying in the fire hall in May 1955, having moved there only a month earlier — from the Strathcona Hotel.
But two others are still in Nelson and shared their memories at the ceremony.
Bud Beauchamp, 86, was out of town when the hotel burned, working the night shift on his other job with the CPR. But when he returned later that day, it was his sad duty to help search for bodies. Along with Chief Elwyn Owens and another firefighter, he helped remove Harumi Shinmoto’s remains.
Tom Murphy, 87, remembers answering the phone in the alarm room. The caller’s first word raised the hair on his neck: “Strathcona.”
He handed the phone off and raced to gear up. “We could get dressed in 17 seconds,” he says. “When I went down the hill, I could hear the screaming and yelling. It was surreal.”
A man in the alley trying to protect the Lutheran Church with a garden hose asked Murphy to put some water on it. He obliged, for “there was nothing else we could do.” The fire was hot enough to melt cast iron bed frames.
The department had no nets and just one aerial ladder, which frantically swung from window to window to rescue trapped occupants. Murphy speaks with awe of Don Cunningham, who operated it. “They claim he took 25 people off the side of that building. I’ve never seen an aerial work like that. Unbelievable.”
That ladder is now perhaps the single most evocative artifact in the fire hall’s museum.
Murphy and most of his colleagues stayed all night, to the brink of exhaustion. But one lighter moment stood out.
“The day after, we were in the hall cleaning when a little man came up and in a broad Scottish accent asked ‘Did any of you boys find my teeth?’
“To make him feel good, we said we’d take a look. And we found them in a jar, half full of water! The glass had melted and run down the outside. So he was happy.
“Two hours later, he’s back up at the hall and said ‘Lads, you didn’t find my wife’s teeth, did you?’”
Following the presentation, the three Meyers brothers and the two former firefighters posed together in front of one of the department’s antique trucks. Five of the last people who know firsthand what that terrible night was like, reunited for the first time.
Bound together in soot and smoke and memory.