Disabled homeless woman says she was trapped on 15th floor of shelter hotel during a fire
Jennifer Jewell thought she was going to die on the night of Feb. 14.
The 50-year-old disabled Toronto resident is currently experiencing homelessness, and she's been staying at the city's Bond Place Hotel shelter for nearly three months now.
But when a fire broke out on the hotel's fifth floor on Sunday night, her multiple disabilities — including chronic pain, arthritis, ME/CFS and fibromyalgia — prevented her from being able to walk down the flights of stairs from her room on the 15th floor and evacuate the building.
"I was just really scared, I thought I was going to die at first," Jewell told blogTO. "Once the smoke started coming up I was really, really scared. I sent voice messages to all my friends telling them what was happening because I didn't want them to just not hear from me again."
I am homeless and in a city of Toronto hotel. I am trapped on the 15th floor of a burning building and I'm too disabled to come down the stairs. Everyone else is evacuated. I am 10 stories up from the fire and all I can breathe is smoke— Wyld Wych (@Wyld_Wych) February 15, 2021
Jewell said the fire alarm had been going off for roughly five minutes before shelter staff got on the PA system to tell everyone there was a fire and residents should evacuate the building through the stairwells.
Because of her disabilties, she knew that was out of the question, so she stayed in her room and waited for help.
"At one point, one of the staff came to my floor to make sure everyone was out, so I went out with my walker and told him that I was physically unable to walk down the stairs, and he told me that was my only choice," she told blogTO.
"I told him three times that I could not go down 15 flights of stairs and that going down the stairs with my walker would be dangerous. And he kept telling me that that was my only choice and he couldn't help me. And after the fourth time, he said he would notify someone I was up here, and then he left."
So Jewell kept waiting, and when no one came to her aid after another short while, she said she began phoning down to security and the front desk to let them know she was trapped, physically disabled and unable to get off her floor.
Staff continued to reassure her that someone would come for her eventually, she said, but after even more waiting, the smoke from the fifth floor fire started to make its way into her room.
"There was enough smoke that it was hurting me to breathe, my chest hurt and I started getting really scared, so I called 911 and told them that I was trapped up here and that I had no way to evacuate," she said.
Roughly 15 minutes later, Jewell said two firefighters wearing oxygen masks showed up at her door and informed her that at that point, there was simply too much smoke in the stairwells for them to take her downstairs.
They instead told her that the safest place at that time was her room, so she soaked some towels, put them against her door, sat by the open window and hoped the fire would be put out soon.
I had to call 911. The staff were not helping me. The firefighters just got here to my room. There's too much smoke for them to take me down the stairwell. They said I will be safe in my room. My lungs are burning.— Wyld Wych (@Wyld_Wych) February 15, 2021
"I made them promise that they wouldn't forget about me if the fire got worse," she said, "and then they left."
But while Jewell certainly avoided the worst case scenario last weekend, she was left feeling fearful and angry about what could have happened. And she's even more frustrated that she has yet to hear from shelter staff following the upsetting incident.
In a statement sent to blogTO by Dixon Hall, which operates the Bond Place Hotel shelter, a spokesperson confirmed that a fire took place on the night of Feb. 14 and that there were no injuries.
"Dixon Hall has in place, and adheres to, a Fire Safety Plan for all of our Housing sites. In addition, staff regularly complete an accessibility bed list – a document that is updated routinely to inform staff and emergency services of the room locations of clients with accessibility needs," reads the statement.
"The Hotel's intercom communication system was utilized during the fire to communicate with guests. Only guests on certain floors were asked to evacuate; others were requested to stay in their rooms to help ensure everyone's safety."
The statement also indicates that Dixon Hall is currently conducting an internal review of the events of the 14th.
But Jewell disputes the claim that only certain floors were asked to evacuate, telling blogTO the announcements on the PA system repeatedly said everyone in the building should evacuate through the stairwell for the first half hour.
The announcement, she said, only changed once the stairwell was full of enough smoke that it was no longer safe to use.
Now, she said she's wondering what will change for others with disabilities living in the shelter hotels, especially following the city's announcement that two more are set to open their doors soon.
The @cityoftoronto is opening two more shelter hotels. My question is: Are you setting aside the lowest floor for dis/Abled folks so that what happened to me (being left behind on the 15th floor in building that was on fire) never happens again? https://t.co/t5Vv3idVJA— Wyld Wych (@Wyld_Wych) February 18, 2021
"The most upsetting thing to me is that they have absolutely no plans to do anything differently," she said.
"I waited the day after the fire and no one followed up with me, no one came to talk to me... There are a number of people here who are physically disabled living in the building who have canes and walkers, and there is at least one woman in a wheelchair," she continued.
"I asked [a friend] how many other physically disabled residents he saw along with everybody else who was evacuated when he got downstairs. He said he did not see a single person with an assisted device, which leads me to believe that they just left us all behind, and, to them, that's acceptable."
Jewell also told blogTO that the living conditions inside the city's hotel shelters aren't half bad, especially compared to the regular shelter system, but that she feels that the necessary resources and aids for those with disabilities just aren't sufficient.
"The rooms themselves, though, are really nice," she said.
"Everyone has their own space and their own bathrooms and I think that's really important for everyone that is homeless and doesn't have any other official space in the world. Aside from physical disabilities, from what I've seen, the staff are usually really helpful and friendly."
But what happened during the fire is absolutely unacceptable. It is incredibly lucky that no one died and they are making no statements to the effect that they plan on changing the procedure to prevent death in the future.— Wyld Wych (@Wyld_Wych) February 18, 2021
But on her second day there, she said she asked to be moved to a lower floor in case the very thing that occured last Saturday were to happen — a request that was evidently never granted.
She said she has also had issues accessing the outdoor wheelchair ramp to get into the building, and she's asked to be moved closer to the elevator several times to make mobility easier — but to no avail.
First night I was brought here I booked an appointment for a medical intake the next day. My being unable to come down the stairs in event of a fire was the second thing I brought up. Being denied access to the wheelchair ramp to get back in the building was the first.— Wyld Wych (@Wyld_Wych) February 16, 2021
Jewell said she even had to use one of the hotel chairs in the bathtub for her first few weeks in the shelter as they were not equipped with actual bath chairs.
"I was stuck using one of the hotel chairs in the bathtub which is really dangerous because that's not what its for," she said. "It had flipped over on me when I was sitting in the shower and I banged my head off of the faucet several times and would fall several times trying to get in and out of the shower."
Before she began her stay at the Bond Place Hotel, Jewell was staying in one of the city's banned tiny shelters in a Toronto park, where she also encountered countless challenges related to being disabled, though she said it was still a step up from the regular shelter system.
Jewell has been taking to social media to share the story of what happened to her in the wake of Sunday's frightening incident, writing several threads with details of the fire and tagging the city to ask how they plan to improve conditions for disabled residents living in city-run hotel shelters.
You are opening two more shelter hotels for the homeless. What are your plans on designating the lowest floor specifically for people who are physically dis/Abled so that this never happens again?— Wyld Wych (@Wyld_Wych) February 18, 2021
But, if nothing else, Jewell said she wants people to better understand what life is really like for those with disabilities, especially amid the pandemic.
"Covid is so hard for so many people and middle class people, for the first time, are experiencing what it is like to live as we have been living for our entire lives," she said, referring to those living in poverty.
"And as hard as it is — and I don't want to take away how hard it is for people who are not disabled during covid — but it is so much harder on us," she continued.
"Because we don't have the physical mobility to be able to stand in line for an hour to get into a store. We don't have the money that we need to have groceries delivered to us. We don't have access to any resources, and we have really just been left behind."
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