Derek White’s 99 Resto Bar was among the businesses completely destroyed in the fire. (Courtesy Jeremy White)
A massive blaze early last Thursday morning burned the majority of Plaza 138 to the ground and saw over 60 firefighters and five neighbouring fire departments answer the call for help.
The call came into the Kahnawake Fire Brigade at 3:17 a.m. and by 3:36 both ambulance and fire trucks were on scene battling the blaze.
Kahnawake Fire Brigade chief David Scott was on scene with his crew in a makeshift observation/command post.
“When we got here it was moving through the roof and the rafters on the east side of the building,” said Scott.
“It just ripped right through it…it just ran. We had to re-position our trucks twice because of the heat and the smoke.”
The KFB, along with firefighters from Chateauguay, St. Remi, Lery, Ste. Isidore and Mercier, helped to protect Wolfco gas station and the garage on the far side of the parking lot near Mohawk Internet Technologies.
An eyewitness saw someone near the Plaza 138 building around 3 a.m., which is believed to further push the possibility of arson to the forefront.
Firefighters also saved the small part of Plaza 138, on the north side.
Scott dispatched a truck from Mercier to the back of the building to keep an eye on about seven or eight large 300-plus pound propane tanks.
Budget Propane showed up to shut off the gas, although Scott said if a propane tank were to ignite, there is a relief valve that helps to contain it.
“There were explosions since we’ve been here, in the building,” said Scott, who added a vehicle was also destroyed in the blaze.
A “rehab” post was set up, with firefighters getting their vitals checked, with oxygen and whatever else needed in the dangerous combo of plus-four degree weather and sweltering heat from the fire, mixed with heavy white smoke, rain and high winds.
A support truck, the Unite Communautaire de Mesures d’Urgence, was stationed at the plaza, where firefighters were able to eat and drink, as well as an area with fresh equipment and supplies, which the firefighters used as needed.
One of the biggest issues is the lack of fire hydrants at the plaza, forcing water trucks to use two places – the fire hydrant near the arena or ones in Chateauguay to fill up.
“Every community, Lery, Ste. Isidore…they all have tanker trucks that allows them and us to go beyond the hydrant system,” said Scott. “It’s something we deal with. It would be nice, absolutely, to have hydrants, but what’s the cost to put a system in here?”
“We make due as best as we can,” said Scott, as water trucks hurried back and forth to quell the blaze, hauling water to makeshift pools that were set up in the parking lot to supply the tangle of hoses.
A digger was also on scene, to help sift through the wreckage and make it safe.
This type of potential arson investigation goes beyond Scott’s training, he said, so a special arson investigation unit from the Surete du Quebec has taken over.
“The security guy said he saw someone there before the fire broke out, so there’s something not right there,” he said.
An attempted arson report at Plaza 138 was filed with the Kahnawake Peacekeepers in the fall.
“On October 7 (2016), one of the security guards called to say a Molotov cocktail had been thrown at the building,” said assistant Peacekeeper chief Jody Diabo. “But there was no fire and there are no suspects at this time.”
Highway 138 was closed most of the morning, at Scott’s request because of all of the fire truck traffic back and forth to the scene, but it was also done for extra precaution because of potential disaster with the propane tanks.
Highway 138 re-opened at 10:45 that morning.
Derek White’s 99 Resto Bar was completely destroyed.
“The family of the 99 is devastated with the fact we lost everything,” he told The Eastern Door.
“It was our fifth anniversary and we were starting renovations to make it even better, but this happened. We need a few days so we can sort out lots of stuff,” he said, adding he’d like to thank all of the customers who frequented his business right up until the night before.
“The investigation will have to comb through it but according to the call I received at 3:30 the bike shop was engulfed with flames and when I arrived there was lots of smoke near 99 but no flames yet – just at the bike shop – and an empty unit had flames coming out,” said White.
That motorcycle shop, HR Kustom Motorcycles, was owned by Peter Thomas, who also spoke to The Eastern Door.
“Nobody got hurt, life goes on and everything that can be bought can be replaced,” said Thomas, who opened the bike shop in November 2015.
Thomas’ daughter Skye called to tell her dad the shop was on fire. He hurried to the scene and, once there just after 7:00 a.m., his “jaw hit the floor,” he said.
To make matters worse, Thomas still hadn’t purchased insurance, and he figures he lost about $200,000 worth of motorcycles he was building, other bikes, tools and parts.
“I’ll find another place and start over,” he said. “Once the investigation is done I’m going to go and see what I can salvage. I have a lot of support – from customers and suppliers. I’m going to be back in business,” said Thomas.
Sweety’s Homemade Ice Cream shop and White’s A1 Tickets were also destroyed in the fire.
The part of Plaza 138 that was saved included a cigarette story, the new Legendz barbershop, Thomas’ small auto repair garage and a few other spots.
This story originally appeared in the January 13, 2017 issue of The Eastern Door.
Eastern Door Editor/Publisher Steve Bonspiel started his journalism career in January 2003 with The Nation magazine, a newspaper serving the Cree of northern Quebec.
Since that time, he has won numerous regional and national awards for his in-depth, impassioned writing on a wide variety of subjects, including investigative pieces, features, editorials, columns, sports, human interest and hard news.
He has freelanced for the Montreal Gazette, Toronto Star, Windspeaker, Nunatsiaq News, Calgary Herald, Native Peoples Magazine, and other publications.
Among Steve's many awards is the Paul Dumont-Frenette Award for journalist of the year with the Quebec Community Newspapers Association in 2015, and a back-to-back win in 2010/11 in the Canadian Association of Journalists' community category - one of which also garnered TED a short-list selection of the prestigious Michener award.
He was also Quebec Community Newspapers Association president from 2012 to 2019, and continues to strive to build bridges between Native and non-Native communities for a better understanding of each other.