© Guardian photo by Brian McInnis
An Elliotvale man who tried to rescue three teens whose bodies were found inside a vacant Charlottetown building gutted by fire says he cannot stop thinking about the tragic events that unfolded Saturday morning.
Alan Hayden was on his way to work just after 5 a.m. when he came upon the building on Mount Edward Road. It was emitting heavy clouds of dark smoke.
He immediately called 911 and a police officer on patrol came upon the scene shortly afterward.
They both thought it was just a routine fire until suddenly a teenage boy emerged from the smoke, hands outstretched and badly burned.
“The fire had burned the skin right off. I couldn’t believe his hands,” Hayden said in an interview with The Guardian Saturday.
The young man told Hayden and the police officer he had been inside the burning building and had escaped by breaking a window and crawling through it.
He then told them the shocking news – three of his friends were still inside.
“You’d think he would have been screaming and shouting, but he just said, ‘You’ve got to help me, my friends are in there.’”
Immediately, Hayden and the police officer ran toward the building, which was already engulfed in smoke and quickly igniting into flames.
They approached the back door, but the smoke was too thick to see anything.
“We were yelling their names and everything, and we just couldn’t get in there,” Hayden said.
“The door was open a wee bit so I pushed it open and started in about four or five feet, but the smoke just got too thick. And from where the wee lad was telling us his friends were, that was where the thick of the flames were. And I heard absolutely nothing.”
Hayden and the police officer then went around the side of the building to try to find another way in, but all the windows were boarded over.
“I tried to get the wood off the windows to try to see if we could get at them that way, but all the wood was screwed into the windows, so it was near impossible to get in there,” he said.
He even tried busting through the wood with a large piece of lumber he found nearby.
More police officers and firefighters began arriving on the scene, but by this time Hayden said he could hear the floor inside the building giving way.
Meanwhile, his girlfriend stayed with the young man who had escaped. She said he told her he and his friends were in the vacant building to keep warm from the cold.
“He said they just needed a place to stay.”
The teen also told her his three young friends had been sleeping when the fire broke out.
Hayden said he eventually left the scene and went to work when it became clear he could no longer be of assistance.
“It’s just a shame we couldn’t do anything. I’ve thought of nothing all day but this.”
Charlottetown Deputy Police Chief Gary McGuigan said investigators are still in the process of trying to positively identify the three victims, and autopsies have been performed.
He did confirm the individual who survived was a young male and that the three victims are also believed to be young.
Local teenagers have been posting the names and photos of three teens from Montague on social media sites, identifying them as the three who perished with messages of grief and condolence.
“You’d think he would have been screaming and shouting, but he just said, ‘You’ve got to help me, my friends are in there,’”Alan Hayden
Despite the lack of official confirmation of details, many stories are circulating in the community and online about the identities of the four people young people.
McGuigan said he understands many stories are being circulated about the incident and victims, but asked for patience as investigators work to officially identify the bodies and notify next of kin.
In the meantime, many are wondering why the four teens were in the graffiti-covered vacant building in the wee hours of a cold, wintery morning.
Most of the residents who live in the immediate area said they often saw young people hanging around the area, but mainly only in the summertime.
Greg Aitken, who lives directly across the street, said he would hear music and noise from what he suspected were parties taking place in the building several months ago.
“We knew this summer that there were kids in there, because you could hear the racket,” he said.
“We didn’t hear anything this winter though.”
Both he and another neighbour said a small gazebo adjacent to the building that burned Saturday was vandalized last summer.
The investigation into the cause of the fire is ongoing and police have the premises secured.
More information on the police investigation is expected to be released on Monday.