As fire crews arrived at the scene of a Johnson Street home going up in flames in February 2013, Victoria police Const. Andre Almeida couldn’t help but second guess whether he could have done more to help the victims trapped inside.
It was around 4 a.m. on Feb. 15 when Almeida and the other officers on watch received a call about a fire in a large house with multiple suites.
Almeida was one of the first officers to arrive at the scene he describes as chaotic. The flames had already taken over the front corner of the home, spreading to a car on the driveway, and were also threatening an adjacent home. Many people were already on the street, yelling at officers that there were still people inside.
Almeida and a group of officers started evacuating one of the neighbouring homes, then kicked through a fence to get into the back of the burning house in an attempt to get inside. He wondered whether he should take the risk and go in, but the heat from the flames was too intense.
“It was probably one of the worst fires I have ever been at,” said Almeida. “You have a sense of helplessness because you can’t go in. I remember numerous times telling the fire guys, there’s people inside. It’s one of those things that’s so dangerous it’s tough to deal with.”
Despite the efforts of police and firefighters that day, three people — Emily Morin, 20, Mark Mitchell, 26, and 22-year-old Georgia Klapp died in the blaze, marking the worst fatal fire in Victoria in 15 years.
Nine months later, Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon awarded five officers for their bravery that night. Working in the K9 unit at the time, Almeida was overlooked, but he’s now been added to that list of officers awarded for their bravery that night and was recently given a meritorious service award at B.C.’s 35th annual Police Honours Night.
Sixteen officers throughout the province received the award of valour — the highest award for a police officer in B.C., while another 40 officers, including Almeida, were feted with meritorious service honours, which recognize exemplary performance that exceeds expectations.
Even though it’s been more than three years since the fatal fire, Almeida said the recognition means a lot to him in a job that can often be thankless. The call is one that will always stay with him and has changed his outlook on fires.
“There’s a lot of dangers put on officers without breathing apparatuses that could affect us years down the road,” said Almeida, who’s responded to a couple fires since the deadly blaze in 2013.
“A fire is one of those things that can overwhelm somebody so quickly…At the end the police had done the best we could have done in that situation.”