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Urn containing son's ashes rescued after Charlottetown apartment fire

Janet and James MacDonald, shown recently at a cottage where they are spending some time with family, are rebuilding their lives after a fire devastated their apartment building on Harley Street in July.
Janet and James MacDonald, shown recently at a cottage where they are spending some time with family, are rebuilding their lives after a fire devastated their apartment building on Harley Street in July 2019. - Alison Jenkins
HAMPTON, P.E.I. —

Janet MacDonald decided to go to the gym the morning of July 17.

She had woken up around 5 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. It might have been because her husband, James, was away in Scotland and she had the couple’s apartment to herself. 

So, wide awake, she got dressed. As she was gathering her things, she noticed flames reflected in the windows of the building next door.

“I went out onto my patio and the whole west end (of my building) was being eaten by flames,” said Janet.

She and James are two of the 52 displaced residents from the apartment complex on 10 Harley St.

“I grabbed a few little things. My son passed away in May, so I wanted to make sure I had his phone and his e-reader.”

She figured it would be a just few hours before the fire was out.

“I grabbed my bottle of water and I grabbed some granola bars, thinking we’ll be all out there, we’ll share these granola bars,” she said.

It soon became clear Janet would not be back home any time soon.

“I went outside and I was amazed how fast that fire raced across the roof of that building.”

She texted her husband James in Edinburgh. Their son, Marc, a history professor, was making a presentation at a conference and James had gone with him.

They had plans to visit the Isle of Skye afterwards.

When they got news of the fire, it was already 10 a.m. in Scotland, so father and son scrambled to reschedule their trip and get home as soon as possible.

James kept in touch with Janet moment-to-moment by text and phone calls back home, feeling helpless.

“It was pretty horrific,” he said.

Janet and James MacDonald hold some of their son James’ rings. The couple was only able to recover a few items from their burned apartment building on Harley Street.
Janet and James MacDonald hold some of their son James’ rings. The couple was only able to recover a few items from their burned apartment building on Harley Street.

 The fire isn’t the first tragedy the family has endured this year. The MacDonalds’ older son had died just 12 weeks before.

On the Wednesday of the fire, it looked like they might lose their son a second time — inside the burning building was the urn holding Sean’s ashes.

But their daughter, Shannon Mader, discovered some good news in the midst of the loss that afternoon when they returned to get Janet’s car.

“Mom, they’re going to see if they can get Sean’s ashes,” she told her mother.

“I don’t want people getting hurt over ashes,” said Janet, protesting. But the firefighters were keen to try.

“They’ll do what they can,” said Shannon.

Even now, with James at her side, Janet finds it hard to get the words out. 

“The fireperson went in, he had to take off some of his gear to crawl under, and he got them.” 

The wooden urn was unharmed.

Their couple’s thoughts are with their friends now.

Retirees James, 70, and Janet, 69, were new to apartment life when they chose to move to The Harold.

However, they had plenty of company as they and their neighbours were all coming from family homes into the complex at the same time. 

The MacDonalds formed fast friendships.

It was these people Janet thought of when she brought the granola bars to share, she said. 

“When Sean died,” she started, but her voice failed. James moved to sit with his wife, leaning close as she gathered her strength.

“I was overwhelmed with the kindness of the people in our apartment. They were just super, they came with food, they came with flowers. They were there to support us in every way.” 

Though everyone escaped the fire safely, several of their neighbours were older and haven’t been as resilient.

“Nobody lost their life,” Janet said. “Yeah, maybe not at that time, but we have real fears.”

Firefighters respond to a flare-up Thursday morning, fewer than 24 hours after a fire ravaged a Harley Street apartment complex in Charlottetown.
Firefighters respond to a flare-up fewer than 24 hours after a fire ravaged a Harley Street apartment complex in Charlottetown.

James joined Janet in the hotel arranged by the Red Cross the Friday after the fire.

Remembering those few days without James brings fresh tears.

“I could do nothing,” said Janet. “I’m usually pretty level-headed, but I found out then, it’s because he’s always been there. So, I couldn’t wait for him to be home.” 

Now the MacDonalds are spending some time with family. In January, they had arranged to rent a cottage for a two-week vacation for everyone. 

No one expected the stay would be a brief holiday before starting the daunting task of rebuilding a family life of 46 years in the making.

“It’s the little things,” said Janet.

Picking up an outfit, the sales clerk told her she’d have to snip the pockets open. Janet had it back to her room before she realized.

“I can’t trim it. I don’t have a pair of scissors. Just those simple little things. Nail file, nothing.”  

Though they have an apartment lined up, the MacDonalds think they’ll end up back in a hotel again for a while, simply because they have no furniture.

“We have less now than when we got married,” said Janet.

“That’s right,” said James, realizing it for the first time.

They are thankful to get the apartment they did — James called it a fluke, but it’s not a permanent home.

“We don’t know our long-term future.”

alison.jenkins@journalpioneer.com


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