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Updated: Wed, 18 Dec 2013 22:53:59 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Crews hope to have Kingston crane down by Thursday night



The crane, charred and structurally damaged by the intense heat, could collapse, officials say. Kingston fire Chief Rhéaume Chaput says crews hope to have the crane down by Thursday night. CBC

The crane, charred and structurally damaged by the intense heat, could collapse, officials say. Kingston fire Chief Rhéaume Chaput says crews hope to have the crane down by Thursday night. CBC

The fire chief in Kingston, Ont., says crews are hoping to take down the crane badly damaged by yesterday afternoon's intense fire at a residential complex under construction.

It is hoped the crane will be dismantled by Thursday night.

The blaze damaged nearby buildings and also led to the dramatic rescue of a crane operator stranded above the flames by a helicopter team from CFB Trenton.

The crane operator, Adam Jastrezbski, suffered burns to his hands, back and legs, but is improving in hospital, according to his wife, Helena.

The site continued to smoulder into early Wednesday evening. Firefighters can't get too close to the site until the crane is taken down, so they can't douse any remaining hot spots.

Staff with the Office of the Fire Marshal of Ontario, the Kingston fire department and Ontario's Ministry of Labour are planning how to move forward.

- PHOTOS: Helicopter rescues crane operator

Kingston fire Chief Rhéaume Chaput estimated the fire reached temperatures of about 1,000 F, and said that steel begins to be compromised at about 600 F.

Everyone within a two-block radius of the structurally compromised crane are still waiting to return to their homes. 

"Being right in the middle of a populated downtown part of the city of Kingston, there are several buildings that ... the crane could actually collapse onto," Kingston Mayor Mark Gerretsen said Wednesday morning.

Gerretson said later on Wednesday damage to the adjacent Royal Canadian Legion Villa would result in long-term displacement for residents of the seniors home. The building's roof caught fire as the blaze spread on Tuesday.

Mayor had worries

Gerretsen told CBC News he had concerns about the wooden building that caught fire Tuesday – leading to the dramatic helicopter rescue – well before flames broke out.

"I'll be the first to admit — driving by this building, and I did on a daily basis — as I saw the wood structure go up, and having some experience in the construction world outside of my business at city hall, I thought to myself, 'Well, this is a pretty big structure to be made out of wood entirely,'" he said.

"I think that many members of the community shared that concern."

Gerretsen stressed that the city has no say over materials used in the construction of any building. That's covered by provincial legislation

"What I can tell you is that a proper building permit was taken out, and that according to the design, it adhered to the building code," the mayor said.

Cause still unknown

Power was shut off in the area around the fire and residents living within a half-kilometre were taken to an emergency shelter at the Portsmouth Olympic Harbour.

Residents who had nowhere else to go were put up in hotels by the city, Gerretsen said.

Police said residents have been asked to stay away from the perimeter of the fire, from Concession Street to the north and west, Albert Street to the east and Dundas Street to the south. They said they'll be advising residents when they can re-enter the evacuation zone to collect pets or other items.

Developer issues statement

The developer of the commercial and residential housing complex, Patry Inc. Developments, issued a statement Wednesday saying it was thankful no lives were lost in the fire and thanked Kingston Fire Rescue, Kingston police, Kingston EMS, Trenton Search and Rescue, neighbouring fire departments and all other individuals/organizations who assisted to prevent loss of life.

The company said the cause of the fire is still under investigation, and in its statement defended its choice to use wood in the construction of the building.

"Regarding the suitability of wood construction for this project, large wood frame construction buildings are built throughout the country and have been since 1990; there are thousands of these buildings located throughout Canada.

"Furthermore, the building has been designed and was constructed to meet all Ontario Building Code and Ontario Fire Code requirements. It is of note that this is a construction site fire, and as with any building material during the construction phase, it is more vulnerable to fire damage in comparison to a completed building where all fire and safety features are in place," the statement read.

Many students were expected to move into the building when it was completed. The company said for people who signed leases for September 2014, the company said it would be in touch "in the near future as the situation is assessed."

Construction at the site was being overseen by Stelmach Property Management.

'Extremely unusual rescue' 

The military rescue team that answered the call from the Kingston fire department on Tuesday afternoon credited their regular training with helping them handle what they called an "unusual rescue."

Sgt. Cory Cisyk, a search and rescue technician for 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron based at 8 Wing Trenton at CFB Trenton, said the crew didn't know what to expect as they were flying to Kingston, but they had a couple of different plans.

"I can't imagine [the crane operator's] perspective," said Agnew. "From miles off in the distance we could see the flames and the smoke.

Based on the information they received, the crew planned a "double-up" rescue in which Cisyk would be lowered from the chopper on a cable and then use a strap or "horse collar" to wrap around the crane operator to pull him up. 

Cisyk said that when he first made contact with Jastrezbski, the crane operator, it was difficult to communicate with him because of the noise from the helicopter.

"I tried to explain what I was going to do. I don't know if he understood," said Cicyk, a native of Regina.

Cisyk said it took time to get the collar around the man because he was lying down at the end of the crane's boom, but he got help from the helicopter flight engineer, Corp. Iain Cleaton, who gently hoisted the two up to help them stand.

Once he got the crane operator in the chopper, Cisyk said, he had only a brief conversation with him to find out if he was hurt.

The crane operator was taken to hospital with minor injuries.

"For us, this was extremely unusual. But even discussing with the crew afterwards … we really figured that the training we do every day really came into it and played a big factor in ... the way things ran."

'It's just so surreal,' witness says

John Ashie, who was working at his family's car dealership down the street, said the entire episode was like something out of an action film.

"Especially when the helicopter guy was rescuing him from the crane, everyone was like, 'Oh my god! I can't believe this is happening, it's just so surreal,"' said Ashie.

David Elias, a civilian public affairs officer with the Canadian military, said the crews are normally not involved in urban rescues.

"The number of times we would have hoisted someone off a crane like this, I imagine we could count that on one hand. Normally we are hoisting people off of boats or mountains," said Elias.

"He wasn't just standing on a tower crane. He was standing on a tower crane surrounded by flames."

All construction workers at the site are believed to be accounted for, according to Kingston police.

"We're extremely grateful of the amazing work done by CFB Trenton to rescue that one individual that everybody was worried about," Gerretsen told CBC's Power & Politics host Evan Solomon Tuesday. "This is a day that the public can be extremely proud of your emergency workers."

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