A captain with the fire department and his crew could see flames from a distance as they turned from Herring Cove Road and headed towards Spryfield on Feb. 19 last year.
“We knew that if people were trapped in there, that we had to get in quickly if we were going to give them a chance,” said fire captain Brendan Meagher, who is the president of Halifax Professional Firefighters.
When they arrived, Meagher said firefighters knew there were people trapped, but did not know how many were in the house on Quartz Drive.
“There was a heavy amount of fire inside the home. On the first floor, we were able to knock down most of the fire that was around us, but we weren’t able to get to the second floor to search up where the bedrooms were,” Meagher said. “The stairs had been burned away.”
The fire had swept through the Barho family’s Spryfield house just after midnight, killing seven children— Ahmad, 14; Rola, 12; Mohamad, 9; Ola, 8; Hala, 3; Rana, 2, and four-month-old Abdullah — who were on the second floor.
Only the parents, Ebraheim and Kawthar Barho, managed to escape, but the father received serious burns and since then has undergone several surgeries.
Meagher is the first firefighter to speak publicly about what happened.
“Your training and experience can prepare you for what you need to do to fight the fire and perform the search. Nothing can prepare you for the impact of the tragedy that happened there.”
Once the fire was out, Meagher said he was involved with removing the children.
“We are progressing in terms of training for resiliency for mental health, but there’s no preparation for tragedy and the way that a loss like that, especially with children.”
He said there were about 40 firefighters on the scene of the fire that night. The department was fully staffed and there was nobody off on any training courses or vacations.
“When I look back…The people that were there that night, the tactics, and how advanced the fire was when we got there, so to have two lines stretched into that home for an aggressive fire attack and in a very heavy fire condition, the tactics and proficiency that the crews did that night was was really remarkable,” Meagher said.
“And I don’t think that any more could have been done from a response perspective,” he added.
Meagher said that tragedy is something first responders are exposed to on a frequent basis.
“The amount of training that we receive, it’s part of our culture. We pride ourselves on being good at what we do and being aggressive.”
He said crews “took great risk” in going inside the house under heavy fire conditions as the roof was actively burning.
“We had crews in there doing everything humanly possible.”
As a result of the tragedy, Meagher said over the last year he has seen a therapist and found it very helpful, adding that people in the community and members of city council have also been extremely supportive.
“More than anything, the other firefighters have really pulled together to take care of each other. And it’s inspiring to see the compassion that that flows from so many directions toward the first responders after this tragedy.”
He said he hasn’t been diagnosed with PTSD, but he does work with people who have and they continue to work as firefighters.
“Work can be almost therapeutic at times. And the things that we experience can’t really be understood or shared with people that haven’t been there, so there’s for me an aspect to therapy of being around the people that I work with and continuing to do the work,” said Meagher, who has been dealing with occupational stress that has been building up during his 23 year career.
A couple of weeks ago, Meagher said, he and his wife took a walk with their dogs, which brought back memories.
“It was a clear night. The night of the fire last year [was clear too] and just looking up was a bit of a trigger for memories of that night.”
But he says there’s a sadness that isn’t just felt by first responders, but by everyone in the community and across Canada.
On Tuesday, Ebraheim and Kawthar Barho released a statement through the Hants East Assisting Refugees Team (HEART), which helped take the family in when they arrived in 2017 from war-torn Syria, to mark the anniversary of the tragic fire.
“We would like to offer our deepest gratitude to the thousands of Nova Scotians who have shown us their love and support over this past year,” Ebraheim and Kawthar said in a written statement.
“The loss is immense, and we miss our children every day.
“Still we have found comfort in the kindness of strangers, in the courage of first responders, in the dedication of healthcare professionals, and in the sense of belonging offered to us by this community. We will keep each and every one of you in our hearts forever.”
The cause of the fatal fire is still classified by Halifax fire as undetermined.
-With files from Ross Lord
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