Amber Foster is pictured with 12-year-old Kohen Ballance at the Travelodge Courtenay — their temporary home after a fire damaged their apartment complex in Merville. Scott Stanfield photo

North Island senior loses everything in fatal fire

A Merville pensioner lost his common-law wife and wound up in hospital with smoke inhalation following a Tuesday fire at his apartment building.

Len Brown, 76, lived in the top floor of the Hillview Apartments, which went up in flames around 11:40 a.m., Oct. 8.

Amber Foster, who has lived in the bottom of the complex for seven years with her mother, Laura Mitchell, was outside the building when the fire broke out. She heard screaming from a neighbouring unit, then saw smoke billowing from the top floor.

“I grabbed a fire extinguisher (from a bystander) and ran upstairs, and ran into the fire and started going as quick as I could,” Foster said. “I could see the fire coming from underneath the bedroom, and I knew that Charlotte had not made it. But I knew that Len was still in there.”

READ: One person dead…

A number of neighbours appeared on scene, and helped Foster retrieve Brown from his unit.

“I could hear him, so we started screaming for Len. It was absolutely horrifying what I saw. Finally, we saw his head peek out. We managed to drag him out the rest of the way, and then drag him down the stairs.”

Foster said the fire started in Brown’s apartment.

“He was in the fire for probably about 15 minutes.”

Foster was also hospitalized for smoke inhalation. She and Mitchell are among the displaced tenants of the eight-unit building who have been put up at the Travelodge Courtenay.

“Charlotte was an awesome person,” Foster said. “Lovely woman. She would help out anyone.”

Mitchell considered 64-year-old Charlotte to be her sister.

“She saved him (Len) because she screamed for him to wake up,” Mitchell said. “She was my best friend in the world. We always used to talk about being sisters because we’re so much alike…I talked to the coroner, and I asked him, ‘Please tell me she didn’t burn to death.’ He said, ‘No, she wouldn’t have. It was smoke first.’ I’m grateful for that, if you can be grateful for anything.”

She’s also grateful that her daughter wasn’t hurt while she tried to extinguish the fire.

“I had to keep grabbing her arm, and she wouldn’t stop,” Mitchell said. “Her face was all black with soot. It was hopeless.”

Mitchell said Brown, who lost his two sons several years ago, has lost everything.

“He’s really scared right now,” she said. “We’re the only family he has. He’s a really nice, nice man. He’d give you the shirt off his back.”

“It’s really tough because he’s like my father,” Foster added. “He’s having a really hard time.”

A top-floor tenant, 12-year-old Kohen Ballance, was at school when the fire broke out.

“I was in shock at what happened,” Kohen said. “I saw my mom. She was crying. I couldn’t take it, she couldn’t take it.”

They, too, are at the Travelodge.

“A lot of water damage in my room,” Kohen said. “Most of the burn was in the living room, and some in my room.”

Foster said government is paying for three days’ accommodation at the hotel.

“We also have the Red Cross coming to help us out.”

A Go Fund Me page has been initiated to raise money to help the displaced tenants: https://bit.ly/2VrVKvD

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