4 families homeless, 4 puppies killed in San Juan fire

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

OVERWHELMING: A fire officer uses a face mask while trying to catch his breath at the scene of a house fire at Moses Avenue, San Juan on Thursday. – AYANNA KINSALE

FOUR of the 11 people who lost their home in a fire in San Juan on Thursday morning say the first fire truck that came to put out the blaze had no water.

When three other trucks with water arrived, the residents say the fire officers changed shift while trying to put out the inferno and had to share two pieces of breathing apparatus during the incident.

After two hours, the house was completely gutted and four puppies were dead. All four families lost their belongings while two residents were treated at the scene by medical personnel.

“They didn’t even have enough water. They changed shifts while the building was burning, imagine that,” said one upset resident.

“This is the fourth fire truck and it can’t even put out the fire,” the man added.

While grateful there was no loss of human life, he lamented the loss of the tenants’ belongings.

“That’s hard. Yeah, we’re happy no one got seriously damaged but to lose the things that you work hard to provide for yourself and your family could take a serious toll on someone’s mental health.”

The resident said officers had to take turns using the breathing apparatus as they battled the blaze.

“The officers were sharing the masks. As one came out, another one would put it on and so it going.”

This, in turn, allowed the fire to reignite several times as attention to the situation was inconsistent, he said.

“Every time one of them came out, the fire just got bigger and bigger. The fire went down and came back up nearly four times in the last two hours.”

When Newsday visited, officers were seen trying to wrangle with leaking hoses. As the fire blazed, a fire officer walked away, sat down and put a face mask to his nose, seemingly trying to catch his breath.

When Newsday tried to speak to him, he said he could not speak at the time.

One resident pointed out the leaks, saying, “Look, the equipment they brought is not even wholesome. The hose burst in like three different places and is wasting one set of water.”

He questioned why taxpayers’ dollars were not being used to adequately equip the fire service. Water from the leaking hose soaked this reporter, several police officers and one fire officer.

“This is licks for taxpayers’ money. They don’t even have the proper equipment. One officer had to use a bolt cutter to burst down a door. Where is our money going?”

As the families sat on a hill looking on as the fire ravaged the place they once called home, officers became engulfed in a thick cloud of black smoke and debris as the top floor collapsed.

Although the residents were not happy with the fire service’s response, that did not stop one man from offering watermelon and bottled water to the officers.

One tenant said she was at work when she received a call from a neighbour and was told smoke was coming from the building.

“When I came home, everything was in shambles. We don’t know what to do, we don’t even know where we’re going to sleep.”

Another teary-eyed tenant said she has two younger siblings, one of whom is currently writing CXC exams.

“My sister had an exam tomorrow. We don’t know how she’s going to write the exam.”

Another was distraught after losing her adult dog and four puppies in the fire.

“My dog had puppies recently. We managed to get the mom out but she got away and ran back in to the house for her babies, we haven’t seen her since.”

Speaking to Newsday, the owner of the house said it was being renovated. She said she had recently spent $25,000 on new appliances.

“The place was well-furnished and was undergoing repairs. It’s all gone now. The stove, fridge, tv, everything.”

Chairman of the San Juan/ Laventille Regional Corporation Richard Walcott offered his sympathies to the affected families.

SWEET TREAT: A Moses Avenue, San Juan resident offers a slice of watermelon to a fire officer on Thursday. – AYANNA KINSALE

“It’s an extremely unfortunate situation but I assure the residents that the corporation will do everything in its power to provide relief to those affected.”

Walcott said the corporation will visit the residents on Friday.

Deputy Chief Fire Officer Andy Hutchinson told Newsday the cause of the fire is still being investigated.

Newsday spoke to Fire Service Association president Keone Guy about the residents claims.

“At the time the Fire Service received the call of the emergency, the closest available tender was at the Morvant Fire Station,” he said.

“The truck presently assigned to Morvant carries only 1,000 litres and is not intended to be the first arrival at any fire incident.”

For comparison, Guy said a suitable tender carries between 4,500 and 10,000 litres of water.

Guy added that only two breathing apparatus kits were available for use at the scene.

“Only two breathing apparatus sets were on the scene which certainly impacted the fire fighting operations and further exposed the responding officers to the hazards of smoke.”

This fire and criticisms on how it was handled follow National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds’ repeated assertions that the Fire Service is “fully equipped.”

Guy said Hinds’ statement was “contradictory and perplexing.

“The minister has repeatedly stated both in the Parliament and outside, that the fire service is fully equipped despite the reality conflicting with his statements.

“There seems to be something fundamentally wrong with how requests for urgent and necessary equipment are treated at the Ministry of National Security at this time.”

During a press conference on April 3rd, Guy pleaded with the ministry to provide the apparatus, as Hinds had reiterated in his October 2024 budget contribution.

“It (the breathing apparatus) is the only thing that allows an officer to safely enter a burning building to rescue people. Without it, operational abilities are critically hampered.”

Guy explained there were only ten sets of apparatus for the 2,000 fire officers at 24 stations.

He said while it may be impractical to assign a breathing apparatus kit to every member of the service, the number of kits available was concerning.

He said the shortage of equipment has resulted in increased incidents of illness and injury to officers and greater public risk.

On April 3, acting Fire Sub Officer (FSO) Patrick Anderson Dick Jnr said he would no longer risk the lives of his crew if the necessary equipment was not received.

“I have made up my mind, the next fire call I go on and we are once more put into a position where we do not have these necessary instruments, John Public is going to die.”

Dick’s comments were after six of his officers had to be taken hospital for smoke-inhalation related injuries as a result of not having the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE).

“I am not losing any one of my crew,” Dick said then.

He said the long-term effect of fire-fighting has sent many officers to an early grave.

“Most firemen don’t live to see 70. Most die after five years of leaving the service. Most died from cancer,” he claimed.

He appealed for adequate PPE for fire officers, saying, “Just give us the basics we are asking for.”