By JESSICA PETT
Darkened windows, billowing smoke, caution tape, fire trucks and a Dollarama all have one common denominator.
In the early evening of Sept. 11, 2015, pedestrians, customers and store owners gathered in the parking lot of Waterloo’s Parkdale Plaza. They watched as smoke and flames destroyed their favourite businesses and in some cases, their life’s work.
The destruction was caused by arson and the accused was just 14 years old.
The stores that make up Parkdale Plaza represent years and years of hard work on the part of individual merchants who have built up those businesses, some for over 30 years. It was all destroyed in a matter of hours. According to a March 4 story in the Waterloo Region Record, damage was estimated at $2 million.
Just a little over six months later, businesses like The Water Depot, Heffernan Jewellers and especially Dollarama are still feeling the effects.
The Water Depot had been open for only two weeks when the fire completely gutted its newest location. The store is located two units down from the Dollarama and suffered extensive damage as a result. Storeowner Greg Watson is frustrated by the events that took place that day and in the days since but said that despite the destruction, there was no question that they would reopen.
“There was a little bit of water damage due to the firefighting efforts when they sprayed down the roof but it had substantial smoke damage. There was a layer of soot or a black sludge-like substance over everything. All of my equipment was destroyed, it was garbage, and all the walls were torn out,” he said.
Despite all of the issues the store ran into, they made their goal of reopening on March 5, 2016. According to Watson, business has been slow, most likely due to the fence located directly in front of the store, which may be misleading customers into thinking it is still closed. The fence is there as Dollarama is still very much under construction.
As for the young man accused of starting the fire, Watson has his own opinion on what should happen to him.
“This kid affected dozens of lives and caused millions of dollars in damage and for what?” said Watson. “I’d like to see him punished. I’d like to see him sit in jail and have time to think about what he did and decide whether he wants to be a part of society.”
Unlike the Water Depot, Heffernan Jewellery had occupied the plaza for over 30 years. The family-owned and run jewelry store had become a well-known name in the community. Regardless of having two locations in Waterloo, the decision not to return to the Parkdale Plaza was a hard one for co-owners Tim Heffernan and his brother Jim.
When the fire began to spread, Tim was in the store alone. All of a sudden he noticed smoke seeping into the store and immediately began gathering up his customers’ products to keep them safe. Not long after that he was asked to leave the building by a police officer.
“It was incredibly hard to breathe and everyone took off,” he said. “I took customers’ jobs and I put them in the safe, but I didn’t take anything (of his own) that particular day, it was too hard to see and it was burning my eyes. When your store is filling up with smoke, there’s no time to look for personal possessions.”
In fact, Tim said the parking lot got so hectic and full so quickly that he couldn’t even drive his car home that evening. When he came back to get it in the morning, firefighters were still working to contain the flames.
According to Tim, smoke damaged the leather wristbands of a few watches but the rest of the jewelry in the store was undamaged. However, all of the showcases, his workbench that was made of wood, and several tools were thrown out due to smoke damage.
“We decided it financially wouldn’t have made sense to go back there,” he said.
But not all that came out of the fire was a loss for the brothers. Jim and his children continue to run the other Heffernan Jewellery location. Tim and his wife decided that they weren’t yet ready to retire and opted to create their own home studio, which they are calling River Ridge Jewelers.
“We decided to open our little studio. It’s exciting but we only started in December. We are going to try it for a while and see how it goes,” he said, adding he believes his former customers, who he has a personal relationship with, will find out about his new store and come visit him. “In a roundabout way my brother is sort of my competition now.”
Tim believes the accused should be tried as a teen but would be unhappy if he didn’t see some significant jail time.
“They’ve got to give him a great report card before they let him out of there (custody). It’s for the safety of the public,” he said.
The fire in Dollarama was set in the aisle that contained gift-wrapping materials. Waterloo resident Rebecca Stanley and her father were inside the store when the fire broke out.
“First I smelled smoke. Then my dad asked if I smelled rubber burning. We looked around and saw a flame up to the ceiling in the back corner of the store and quickly smoke started to fill up the store. Once we were outside the smoke became very thick, heavy and black,” she said.
The fire wasn’t considered “under control” until 13 hours after fire crews began attempts to extinguish it.
John Percy, public education officer for the Waterloo Region Fire Department, said one reason why the fire spread so rapidly toward the other adjoining businesses was partly due to the age of the structure itself.
“There’s no sprinkler system that was required to be installed when it was built so the fire spread through walls and once the flames get to the roof they can go across the roof structure. The biggest challenge we had with a lot of the other tenants was smoke migration,” he said.
The now 15-year-old youth charged cannot be named under the Youth Criminal Justice Act. Justice Colin Westman ordered a psychiatric and psychological report to be done before the youth’s April 1 sentencing. The accused was facing charges of arson, endangering human life and possession of an incendiary device.
After the April 1 court date, Westman said, “He (the youth) entered a plea of guilty in January of 2016 and he was sentenced on April 1 to the equivalent of nine months in jail as a young offender. Both the pre-sentence report and psychological report were quite troubling but the principles of sentencing for young offenders, especially with no record as in this case, requires the court to focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into the community and not on specific deterrence, general deterrence or denunciation as in adult cases.”
Today, many of the fire and smoke damaged stores have reopened and are beginning to see their customers slowly returning. Most businesses that were restored have had a slow start but many owners are hopeful that soon enough, things will be business as usual, just like it was before the night of September 11, 2015.