Each year, the health care team at Sunnybrook’s Ross Tilley Burn Centre sees far too many students injured by fires in unsafe off-campus housing.
“Windows that are too small or don’t open, not enough exits, smoke detectors that don’t work – these things may not seem like a big deal, but they can mean the difference between life and death if there’s a fire,” says Dr. Marc Jeschke, the medical director of Sunnybrook’s Burn Centre.
Here, two university students share their stories of how they survived and thrived after devastating fires in their off-campus rental homes.
Shintaro Tsukamoto, 21, was excited about moving into his new place last July. He had just completed his first year of university in Ottawa, and with only a few weeks until classes started up again, he’d found a basement bedroom in an off-campus rental house.
He had only been living there for three weeks when, one night, he heard a loud noise and glass shattering upstairs. Concerned that someone was breaking into the house, he called 911.
“That’s when the operator told me they had already gotten a call about my house, and that it was actually on fire,” Shintaro says. “I had no idea, because there were no working smoke detectors.”
The 911 operator told him to get out of the basement immediately, but he quickly realized there was no way to escape through the tiny windows.
“I left my room, walked upstairs to the main floor, and saw the entire front half of the house was on fire. I made it to the back door, but it was so smoky that I couldn’t find the lock,” Shintaro says. Overcome by the intensity of the smoke, he passed out.
He eventually regained consciousness and managed to get the door open, escaping into the backyard.
“I have no idea how I got out of there,” he says. “I think it was just pure adrenaline.”
“For a long time, it was difficult and painful to speak, to make my voice heard.”
The extreme heat generated by the fire caused thermal burns to Shintaro’s hands, arms, neck and face.
He was stabilized at a hospital in Ottawa before being airlifted to Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre’s Ross Tilley Burn Centre in Toronto, the provincial centre of excellence for burn treatment and Shintaro’s hometown. He received treatment there for three weeks, led by Dr. Alan Rogers, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon in the Burn Centre. A month of inpatient rehabilitation at Sunnybrook’s St. John’s Rehab followed.
There were concerns he wouldn’t regain full use of his arms and hands, a distressing possibility for a talented athlete who had won several national championships with his ultimate frisbee team.
The smoke Shintaro inhaled during the fire also damaged his lungs, meaning he was intubated and unable to speak for weeks.
“For a long time, it was difficult and painful to speak, to make my voice heard,” he says.
Now, Shintaro wants to use his experience to tell other students how they can avoid ending up in a similar situation.
“Basements are not an ideal place to live, because many of them don’t have direct exits. Make sure there’s a way for you to safely escape in the event of a fire. Working smoke detectors are so important – if they had been working in my house, maybe I would’ve had more time to get out,” he says.
Shintaro was living in the house with people he didn’t know, which meant it was unclear to first responders how many people were actually home when the fire started. Having your housemates’ cellphone numbers, or even having a group chat set up, would be helpful in the event of an emergency.
He also advises taking your time when choosing somewhere to live.
“I was rushing, so I overlooked things about the house,” he says. “Survey all of your housing options, and make sure you feel comfortable. Your safety is the most important thing.”
Shintaro describes his recovery as a long, slow road. Still, he counts himself as one of the lucky ones.
“Even though these injuries caused huge setbacks in my life, I’m motivated to keep moving forward. I’ve kept a positive outlook throughout my recovery, and that’s helped me a lot,” he says.
Shintaro has spent the last year recovering, working and even traveling to Japan to visit family.
This month, he is finally set to return to Carleton University for his second year of studies in the human rights program. With help from his friends, he’s found a new rental house that he feels comfortable living in. He’s also looking forward to returning to the field with his ultimate frisbee teammates.
“My hands and arms have healed really well and I pretty much have full function, thankfully,” he says. “My voice is better too. It’s definitely gotten deeper, although maybe that’s not such a bad thing!”
Fangshu Yu, 20, gently takes off the pressure garments she wears for 23 hours a day, covering the skin from her shoulders all the way to her fingertips. Dr. Marc Jeschke nods approvingly as he examines her arms and hands. “Your skin is healing really nicely,” he says.
“If the window opened further, maybe things would have turned out differently.”
Fangshu, a second-year statistics student at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, was injured three months ago when a fire started in the basement of the off-campus rental house she shared with three other students.
“The house had smoke detectors, but by the time I heard them going off, the smoke was so black and thick that I couldn’t see anything. When I opened my bedroom door, smoke just came pouring in,” she says.
While Fangshu’s bedroom was on the main floor of the house, the window didn’t open up far enough in order for to her jump out.
“If the window opened further, maybe things would have turned out differently,” she says.
Instead, she dropped to the ground and started crawling toward the front door. Covering her mouth with one hand, she held her cellphone in the other, using its flashlight function to navigate the pitch black, smoke-filled hallway.
Though it was only a short distance to the front door, she could feel herself losing consciousness.
“I got so tired, I had to stop and take a break,” she says.
The floor, heated by the intensity of the fire directly below, caused extensive burns to her arms and hands as she crawled. She managed to make it out to the front yard, where neighbours helped her until first responders arrived.
Fangshu was immediately taken to the Ross Tilley Burn Centre at Sunnybrook. There, Dr. Jeschke performed surgery to graft skin from one of her thighs onto her arms and hands. After two weeks in the hospital, she began a five-month course of outpatient rehabilitation at Sunnybrook’s St. John’s Rehab.
“I’m at St. John’s four days a week, working on getting the range of motion back in my elbows, wrists and fingers,” she says. “If I’m lucky, I may be able to stop wearing the compression garments after nine months, but I’ll probably need to wear them for two years.”
Fangshu credits the fact that she wasn’t asleep as the main reason she was able to get out of the house quickly.
“The fire happened at 2 o’clock in the morning, and I was up late, sending out resumes to try and find a co-op job for the next semester,” she says.
Sadly, while four people were in the house at the time, only three of them were able to escape the fast-moving fire.
“It was probably a minute from the time I heard the smoke detector until I got out of the house,” she says. “Another minute after that, I could see the whole main floor in flames.”
Fangshu hasn’t yet been able to return to school, but she’s hoping to recover enough to start classes again in January. Her mom came from China to stay with her, and has been helping her with daily tasks, from getting to medical appointments to putting her hair in a ponytail.
There are some things she still insists on doing herself, though.
“I usually eat using my chopsticks, but for now, I’m stuck using a fork,” she says with a laugh.
Despite her busy rehabilitation schedule, Fangshu is slowly getting back to a routine. She’s determined to find a co-op placement for next year, and to finish her degree. She recently moved into a new condo with her friends, and smiles when recalling the biggest selling point of the unit: the fire-safety features.
“There are smoke detectors everywhere,” she says. “There’s one in every room, out in the hallway, even in the elevator. I feel safe there.”
Are you a student looking for off-campus housing? Ontario’s Office of the Fire Marshal has tips on finding fire-safe student accommodation.
Important things renters should know about the provincial Fire Code can be downloaded here.
If you have concerns about fire safety in your current rental accommodations, in Toronto you can contact the Fire Prevention Office by dialing 3-1-1.