London city and fire officials gathered Friday at the fire department’s headquarters on Horton Street to pay tribute to the heroic actions of two residents who saved three women from a burning home in the city’s northeast earlier this month.
Deputy Mayor Josh Morgan, Deputy Fire Chief Richard Hayes and Platoon Fire Chief Gary Mosburger were among those hand for the ceremony to recognize Yadvinder Saini and Avinash Verma for their “quick thinking, actions, and lifesaving efforts” in rescuing the women from the basement of a home on Hillcrest Avenue, a media advisory said.
Emergency crews were first called to the scene at 1281 Hillcrest Ave., just northwest of Highbury Avenue and Huron Street, around 3 a.m. on Feb. 1 after receiving multiple 911 calls.
Flames were reported from all sides of the structure, officials said at the time, adding the first firefighters to arrive had to attack the flames from the exterior before they were able to enter.
“Unbeknown to us, there were heroic efforts that (had) taken place prior to our arrival,” said Mosburger.
Speaking with reporters, Saini and Verma said they had happened upon the fire after stepping out from their nearby home around 3 a.m., unable to sleep.
The pair live down the street from the home, and have been roommates for the last two years, having met each other at Fanshawe College, their alma mater
“I was like, ‘Hey, is that fire?’” Verma said. “So (Saini) started running, and I got my shoes on, they were nearby, and I started running behind him.”
At the scene, Verma says he asked some people standing outside of the house whether everyone was safe and whether 911 had been called, to which they responded in the affirmative.
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“We thought, ‘Okay, 911 would be here, everyone’s safe,’ … but suddenly a girl screamed that there are three girls trapped in the basement.”
The pair ran to the rear of the home and spotted the women in a small basement window. “There was a lot of snow. I was wearing my slippers, but I did run through the snow. When we reached the back, my feet were frozen and I couldn’t feel my feet,” Saini said.
Saini says asked the three whether there was another way out. There wasn’t. Aside from a door leading to the main floor of the house, which they had blocked to keep smoke from seeping in, the window was the only option.
After removing the window well cover, Verma says he broke open the window with two kicks and helped Saini pull the three to safety.
“After that, the fire department came in. Then we saw some girls. They were in their socks standing out in the snow, and some were just, like, in shirts,” Saini said.
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The temperature at the time was -8 C, according to Environment Canada records. Saini and Verma said they retrieved sweaters and slippers from their house to give to some of their neighbours who had escaped without proper footwear.
Having only lived in the neighbourhood since the start of September, the pair said they didn’t know the neighbours whom they had helped.
“It’s a small world after all,” as the Disneyland song goes.
“I work for a company called Securitas … the next day I got a call in from a guard saying they can’t attend their shift because their house (caught) fire. I looked up their address, it was the same house,” Saini said.
The guard was one of the three women he and Verma had helped rescue.
“She did send some messages saying ‘thank you’ and ‘thanks for saving our lives’ … I just told her we’re glad she’s okay,” he said.
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In all, 15 people were inside the home at the time of the fire, officials said. An investigation has been launched by municipal bylaw officials into the address, which the city’s property inquiry system shows is not licensed as a rental.
Many of those impacted by the fire attend nearby Fanshawe College. In a statement to Global News, Fanshawe spokesperson Elaine Gamble said eight students who had been displaced were now living on campus for free until the end of the semester.
“I believe (Fanshawe Student Union) and others have reached out to those students to assist them further as well,” she said.
The cause of the blaze, which caused roughly $750,000 worth of damage, remains under investigation by the Ontario Fire Marshal’s office. No charges have been publicly announced in relation to the blaze.
The London Free Press reported last week that a neighbour had complained to city bylaw enforcement in March of 2021 about the property being an illegal, overcrowded rental, noting issues related to garbage and debris and the large number of cars that came and went.
The neighbour provided the Free Press a copy of the email he sent, along with what appeared to be an automated response he received back.
Orest Katolyk, the city’s chief municipal bylaw enforcement officer, told the newspaper, however, that the city hadn’t fielded any complaints about the property related to occupancy, and that the only complaints dated from 2021, which had all since closed, were for issues related to the condition of the property.
“The only occupancy complaint we have received with the current owner is the referral from the London Fire Department … and we are now in the early stages of investigating that,” Katolyk told the London Free Press.
Global News reached out to Katolyk on Friday for comment and for an update on the investigation, but he was unavailable for an interview.
“For the purposes of personal privacy, fairness and the principles of independent investigation, we will not be providing any further information on this matter,” said Monika Guzy, a spokesperson for the city.
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More than a week removed from the fire, Saini and Verma say they just did what was right.
“We didn’t expect this, and didn’t have that in mind, that it’s going to lead this way. Definitely didn’t think about all this when we were doing it,” Saini said of the ceremony.
The first thing that comes to mind is to “just go and help. Try to help,” Saini says, “because I can’t be sure that we will be able to help them.”
“Luckily we were able to help. If there was something, like (the) window was too small or something like that, we wouldn’t have been able to do something. But luckily the window was enough size for the girls to get pulled out,” he said.
“I don’t know what other people say. When such a thing happens, you don’t think really. Your mind just stops working. You just do whatever comes to you first. We started running,” Verma said.
— with files from Sawyer Bogdan
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