Despite all they’ve been through, one couple affected by the Hay River highrise fire say they are not planning to leave the community anytime soon.
Both in their 50s, Kevin Wheaton and Marianne Hawkins were forced to evacuate from their apartment after a fire Friday, March 15th made the Mackenzie Place highrise unliveable. Despite their struggle in the weeks since the fire, they say they are the lucky ones. “We got a mobile home right away. Thank goodness for a mother and son that helped us out right away. We are so thankful that we turned out really, really good out of it all,” Wheaton says.
It had always been a dream for Wheaton to see the North. After he found out he had advanced liver cirrhosis, the couple sold everything they had and left their home in Nova Scotia. They visited B.C. then settled in Hay River in May 2018.
Mackenzie Place was the only place they could find to rent, Wheaton says, so they stayed despite the building’s state of disrepair.
“It was not a very nice place to be,” he says. They were not able to use the balconies and Wheaton says he tripped on garbage in the stairwell three days before the fire, cracking two ribs. “That was kind of the last straw for us, we got motivated to move and then the fire broke out and we were kind of forced to move.”
On the afternoon of March 15th Hawkins was out having coffee with a friend and Wheaton was at home when he heard the alarm go off. “That was nothing new,” he says. “And then I smelled smoke because the patio door was open.”
The couple lives on the 8th floor, three floors down from where the fire started. Wheaton was able to get his tools out before he had to leave, however, a lot of memories they brought from Nova Scotia are now gone forever. “Family photographs of my great relatives, generations back and my education and all of Kevin’s medical work, because he’s not well and I am his health care provider,” Hawkins says.
They have since been allowed to return for 15 minutes to retrieve important items. Wheaton says he was devastated to witness the state of his apartment. “The ceiling is falling down, and there’s a big sticker on the door – asbestos – and everything was soaked. Everything was soaking, ringing wet. It was just terrible.”
With their immediate housing needs taken care of, the couple is now turning their attention to their health. Hawkins says it has been very difficult to gather together the energy to care for herself and her partner. “I am exhausted, I have bags under my eyes, I am depleted of energy.”
Dealing with high blood pressure and his cancer care has gone ‘by the wayside’ for Wheaton as immediate needs of shelter and survival were all he could think of after the fire. Diagnosed with PTSD in 2002, Wheaton says it ‘plays on me like you wouldn’t believe.’
Money is also very tight as they spent their savings on hotel rooms in the immediate aftermath of the fire. They have yet to receive their damage deposits and are going through a tough time subsisting on disability income. But one thing is for certain, they are staying put in Hay River. “We kind of fit in and we’re very happy with Hay River and we love it,” Wheaton says.
“The community support has been overwhelming as far as…friendship, generosity, the public officials. It has come together as if we were in Nova Scotia,” Hawkins adds.