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‘I couldn’t be a hero,’ says tenant who fled fire that left landlord dead

Cory Hilliard says there was no time to try and save his landlord early Sunday morning after the house they shared in south Ottawa burst into flames.

“I couldn’t be a hero,” Hilliard told Radio-Canada later that afternoon, standing across the street from the burned-out Manotick home where he lived in the downstairs apartment. 

“There was no way of doing anything in that situation.”

Firefighters arrived at the home on First Line Road at around 2:30 a.m. after getting calls that the entire first floor was engulfed in flames.

According to Ottawa Fire Services, while Hilliard, his daughter and a guest made it out alive, firefighters wading through extremely dangerous conditions found a fourth person — a man in his 50s — inside.

They brought him outside and began treating him before taking him to hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Cory Hilliard at Manotick fire scene April 2, 2023
Cory Hilliard said he lived as a tenant in the basement and fled the fire with his adult daughter. (David Bates/Radio-Canada)

Hilliard identified the man as his upstairs landlord of about 12 years. They weren’t close, he said, but they’d have friendly conversations and knew each other well enough to exchange Christmas gifts.

CBC is not naming him as his identity has not been confirmed with family members.

“There was no calling out [to him],” Hilliard said of fleeing the blaze. “The whole house was engulfed. If he was in there, he was in there. No getting him.”

Feared roof caving in

Hilliard said he went to bed at about 2 a.m. after watching a movie and that his landlord had warned him he would be burning some materials upstairs.

It wasn’t until he couldn’t breathe, Hilliard said, that he realized it was an emergency.

“I just opened some windows and thought everything was great but [came] to find out that the whole house was on fire,” he said. 

When he heard “thumping” noises from upstairs, he feared the roof was caving in. 

“If it was another half a minute, we probably wouldn’t have made it,” he said, adding that he lost all his possessions inside the house except for pyjama pants and a hoodie.

“As soon as I got upstairs, I backed up my car so that it wouldn’t melt.”

police outside Manotick fire scene April 2 2023
The scene outside the home on Sunday afternoon. (David Bates/Radio-Canada)

3rd fatal Ottawa fire in 27 days

Sunday’s fire in Manotick was the third fatal fire in Ottawa in the last 27 days, a trend Ottawa Fire Services spokesperson Nicholas DeFazio called “extremely devastating.” 

When Gatineau, Que., is factored in, there have been three fatal fires in just the last week.

Five days before the Manotick fire, on March 28 — and again in the early morning — one person was found dead in a Kanata home after the flames were put out.

Ottawa Fire Service’s arson unit is looking into what happened there.

Across the Ottawa River, another early-morning fire struck an apartment building in Gatineau’s Hull sector on March 26.

Paramedics tried unsuccessfully to revive a person found unconscious in one unit.

And late at night on March 7, someone was pronounced dead at the scene after a fire inside an Ottawa Community Housing building.

DeFazio said he could not speak to any potential common elements in the fires.

Nicholas DeFazio, Public Information Officer at fatal Manotick fire scene April 2 2023
Ottawa Fire Services spokesperson Nicholas DeFazio speaks to reporters on Sunday. (David Bates/Radio-Canada)

Neither could Ontario’s Office of the Fire Marshal, which said it would be premature to comment on active investigations.

“The OFM urges residents on the importance of having working smoke alarms on all storeys of their homes, and the need for the household to plan and consistently practice a home fire escape plan that includes at least two exits from every room, wherever possible,” a spokesperson said via email.

Gatineau’s fire department said the Hull home that caught fire on March 26 had no fire or carbon monoxide alarms. 

Hilliard said during Sunday’s fire, a carbon monoxide detector did go off.