BRITTANY O’SULLIVAN-FERRIS WAS NEARLY asleep when it happened. It was almost midnight in early June this year. She had put her two youngest children to bed hours before and was just closing her eyes and about to drift off herself when she heard a strange, low rumbling sound.
“My house is close to Highway 400, and you can often hear trucks going past. At first, I thought it was a very long truck. But it kept going. Was it a group of trucks? Was an airplane coming toward my house? I was lying in bed arguing with myself whether I should get up and see what was happening.”
Although she was tired and didn’t want to get up, the rumbling noise grew louder. Brittany couldn’t ignore it any longer.
“Something in me suddenly screamed at me to get up and see what was going on. I rolled over in bed and then sat up. My bed faces the doors to the patio. When I opened my eyes, the doors were glowing the darkest red I’ve ever seen.”
Panicked, Brittany opened the patio doors and saw monstrous flames spreading from the new home construction site toward her house.
“I knew in my head I should call 911, but I was frozen in shock,” she says. “I grabbed my iPhone and couldn’t even get the thumbprint to unlock because my hands were shaking so badly. Then I heard the sirens and was relieved
I wouldn’t have to talk to an operator. I could barely function.”
WHEN THE FLAMES STARTED ENCROACHING on her driveway, the single mom of three—whose nine-year-old and four-year-old were sleeping soundly inside—sprang into action.
“That was when my mom instincts kicked in. I was still in shock, but I had to protect my babies. I ran in the house, grabbed my kids, and put them in the car. And then I remembered Zeus!”
Zeus, Brittany’s 90-pound bulldog, was still inside as the flames crept ever nearer.
“I went inside to grab him and was so paranoid that he’d book it,” she says. “He’s pretty well-trained, but he doesn’t like to stay put sometimes, and he wasn’t wearing his collar.
“When I saw him at the top of the stairwell, I made eye contact with him and yelled, ‘Come here! You have to be good!’ Miraculously, he obeyed. I got him outside and into the car, and he was so calm and well-behaved. He must’ve known something was up.”
Once everyone, including the couple living in the unit below Brittany, were safely outside, neighbours and other passersby stopped to watch the blaze. Brittany found out that a resident’s grandson from IOOF Seniors Home in Barrie, Ontario, where she works as a personal support worker (PSW), made one of the calls to 911.
“It’s a miracle he saw the fire, and it’s a miracle I wasn’t asleep. If I had been asleep, I would probably be sitting in a burn unit right now. I sleep like the dead, and so do my children.”
The fire’s origins are considered suspicious and there’s an ongoing investigation. Overnight, it caused over $2 million in damage, destroying a new housing development, several buildings—and Brittany’s home.
Brittany lost everything except a few boxes containing personal mementos and sentimental items found in the wreckage. Everything else was lost to the fire—with no chance of replacing them. She did not have content or renter’s insurance.
“I was finally beginning to feel like that house was a home,” she says. “I’d left an abusive relationship years before, and I worked so hard to get a nice place for me and my kids. There are so many memories from there, and it’s all just gone because of the smoke damage, water damage, and fire on top of it.
“Four days after the fire, it flared up again because there was a hot spot in the attic. And then the whole ceiling was ripped out.”
After that dramatic night, Brittany’s kids went to stay with her mom in Niagara Falls while she stayed over at various friends’ houses. Five days later, she was back at work.
“It was a rough day back,” she says. “I work on the Alzheimer’s unit, which is stressful enough. Add to the mix being a single mom of three young kids and losing your home and everything else in a fire.”
She wouldn’t have been able to manage if she hadn’t had the support of her coworkers.
KAREN GREENHALGH IS A PSW and steward who has worked at IOOF for over 23 years. She had been working the night shift when another staff member came in and told her what was happening in Brittany’s neighbourhood.
“We started looking for donations right away,” says Karen. “Clothes, furniture, appliances, essentials like toothbrushes and soap—whatever people were willing to donate.”
Karen and several other stewards immediately contacted their CLAC representative, Ruth Ann Ferguson, to see if there was anything the union could do.
“Members were coming up to us stewards, asking what the union would do to help Brittany and asking what they could do,” says Karen. “I’m close with Brittany and I just felt horrible for her. To lose everything, it’s just such an unimaginable tragedy.”
Ruth Ann first heard about the fire on the news driving to work the next day.
“I knew exactly what neighbourhood it was in, and I knew it was a very bad situation,” says Ruth Ann, who is from Barrie. “I never thought about it being one of our members’ homes.”
The first thing she did was talk to Brittany and find out what she needed most. Brittany told Ruth Ann about her coworkers’ donations and the GoFundMe page they set up for her.
“I asked Brittany what her priority was, and she said getting a new house, because she couldn’t be separated from her kids for too long,” says Ruth Ann. “I said it sounded like what she really needed was her first and last month’s rent.”
Brittany told Ruth Ann her landlord gave her back her last month’s rent, which was going toward essentials.
“I contacted J. D. [CLAC Mississauga Regional Director J. D. Alkema] and asked how the union could help,” says Ruth Ann. “I looked around at rental fees in the Barrie area—which are astronomical—and figured out how much she would need to cover first and last month’s rent. CLAC was able to assist with the cost for a decent place. The funds from CLAC helped her and her kids get under one roof again.”
Even with the help from her coworkers and CLAC, Brittany knows she has a long way to go to get back on her feet. But every bit helps.
“I’m so proud of how the membership has rallied around her, providing material, financial, and emotional support,” says Ruth Ann. “Brittany told me she’d be lost without the girls at work.”
IN THE DAYS AFTER THE FIRE, Brittany’s coworkers have stepped in and supported her whenever she has difficulty coping.
“When I’ve had enough on the floor and need a minute to collect my thoughts, my coworkers have all been so great,” says Brittany. “I can just tell them I’m having a bad day, and they’ll tell me to take five minutes and they’ll cover for me.
“I’m still baffled by everything people have done for me. Sometimes, when you’re raising your kids on your own and working hard, you tend to think no one cares about you. I realized that there is so much support out there when the going gets tough. It opens your eyes and renews your faith in humanity.”
Recently, she received keys to her new home and has slowly begun the transition of unpacking and getting her kids all back under the same roof again.
“It took me about three weeks to find a new house,” says Brittany. “It’s a better set-up than my last place, and it’s cozy, but it’s still not home yet. It’s not where I have all the memories of the kids.”
Her first night in her new house alone was an unexpectedly emotional one.
“I was by myself with everything in boxes,” she says. “I got a box of stuff they managed to salvage from the wreckage—sentimental stuff. I was sitting there by myself with the TV on, and I thought it was a good idea to open one of the boxes and see what they saved.
“The first thing I pulled out was one of my son’s old baby blankets that my mom had made for him. At first, all I could see were soot stains, and I thought, okay, this isn’t so bad. But then I unfolded it and saw a huge hole in the middle of the blanket. I broke down and bawled for hours. That’s not something I can ever get back, the memories of my son as a baby using that little blanket.”
While Brittany is happy everything is slowly coming together, she’s still angry about the whole situation, and reeling from losing everything. But reflecting on the experience and its affect on her, she’s also optimistic.
“I guess I needed to be changed for the better. I’m like a phoenix, rising from the ashes to become something brighter and stronger than before.”
“If your house ever catches on fire, put your shoes on before you go outside!” cautions Brittany.
She was in such a panic to get her kids and dog out of the house that she forgot to put her shoes on—something she immediately regretted.
“I misplaced my phone somewhere along the way and needed to find it to call my mom and tell her what happened. I was walking down the street and ended up passing my car because I was still in a fog. I went to get into my car when I stepped in something warm and crunchy with my bare feet. It was a dead rabbit—fresh roadkill. As if seeing my home in flames wasn’t bad enough, I had to step in rabbit brains.
“Growing up, I had lots of bunnies but never managed to keep them alive for long because I was just a kid and not that responsible. When I told my brother that I stepped on a dead rabbit during the fire, he laughed at me and said it was Thumper’s revenge for all the bunnies I hadn’t kept alive as a kid.
“So make sure you put on a pair of shoes because you might end up with Thumper’s guts between your toes!”
The Fish Lives!
Brittany’s dog, Zeus, wasn’t the only pet to survive.
“We have this beautiful dark black-and-blue Betta fish named Venom that I thought was a goner,” she says. “While the house was up in flames, I ended up talking to the fire chief and tearfully told him my fish was inside the house. I was thinking this poor Betta fish that cost me five bucks is going to be a boiled fish fry in there.
“But he survived! The wall collapsed all around him and yet the lucky guy survived. He was just in this vase I got from the dollar store. Apparently, fish survive fire all the time because they’re in water, but Venom’s water was absolutely caked in ash. Needless to say, my kids are so happy their pets survived.”
From Bull-Baiting to Mascot
Broad-mouthed dogs, known as Alaunt dogs, a type of working dog, were the forerunners of modern bulldogs. Brave, patient, and highly tolerant to pain, their roots trace back to the ancient Romans and Greeks where they fought beside soldiers. They came to England in the fifth century, likely making their way with Roman soldiers. The name bulldog was first used in 1631.
Originally bred for aggression to control livestock, bulldogs were also bred for a barbaric sport called bull-baiting, in which several bulldogs were set on a tethered bull, with wagers placed on each dog. The dog that grabbed the bull by the nose and pinned it to the ground was the winner. But the bull often trampled or gored some of the dogs, killing or seriously injuring them. Bull-baiting was banned by the Cruelty to Animals Act in 1835.
Today, the breed is known for its friendly, patient—and stubborn—manner. Like Zeus, they make excellent pets because they form strong bonds with children. While modern bulldogs no longer have the physical characteristics of earlier breeds, the bulldog’s tough reputation came to symbolize the UK’s defiance of Nazi Germany. It is the official mascot of the US Marine Corps and is used as the hood ornament on Mack Trucks. Hundreds of universities, high schools, and soccer and rugby teams use the bulldog as their mascot.
Sources: thehappypuppysite.com, wikipedia.com, cesarsway.com