Edmonton arson fire survivor reeling after neighbour's body found

“It’s horrible. What I can’t even imagine is how that even happened, with the amount of people in and out of there. The police, the firemen, the investigators, the restoration team, the looters.”

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This story contains disturbing details.

It’s been nearly four months since an Edmonton apartment arson fire left Kelsey Johnston in a coma for three days.

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Her life still isn’t back to normal, and she’s reeling from the recent news that one of her neighbours, 70-year-old Ricardo Olivares, was found dead in the rubble of the building late last month.

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Arson fire
Kelsey Johnston, 34, was rescued from the fourth-storey balcony of her apartment building after an arson fire on Jan. 25, 2024, in Edmonton at 107 Street and 79 Avenue. Johnston spent time in hospital in a coma before coming through with lung damage. Supplied Photo edm

From the ambulance ride to waking up from a coma in hospital three days after the Jan. 26 fire is a blur for Johnston, displaced by the blaze police say was started by a neighbouring tenant.

‘An explosion erupted’

On Jan. 25, members of the Edmonton Police Service went to the Queen Alexandra apartment building near 107 Street and 79 Avenue to help provincial bailiffs carry out a court order against a resident who had barricaded himself inside his suite.

Negotiations started around 5 p.m.

After midnight, chaos broke out in the man’s suite, and he was taken into custody.

“I watched the tactical unit retreat into their vehicle and then an explosion erupted out the front of the building,” Johnston recalled in a recent interview.

“I thought I was dreaming. And then the smoke started. There wasn’t any alarms. So I thought, ‘OK, maybe it’s not that bad.’”

Then she heard men shouting outside … and saw the smoke.

“What do I do? What do I do?” she yelled down. 

She left her boyfriend a long and halting voicemail as she got out her cat carriers and threw a few things in a backpack.

“There’s smoke coming out of the tub. And the bathroom sink and the kitchen sink,” she remembered.

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She went back to the balcony and was told to wait.

“And I thought, ‘Well no, the building’s on fire and I can’t wait,’ so I continued to yell for help and what should I do?

She thought she heard an officer yell, “Eight minutes!”

“I didn’t know what ‘eight minutes’ meant.”  

She stuffed a few things into a backpack and put her kitties into the carrier — tabbies Mufasa and Rizla, and a calico named Shiva.  

“I told them everything was going to be OK. They were scared and I was scared.”  

She got a call from a friend, another farmers market vendor, who lived on the third floor, who had gotten out safely with her cat.

“She says, ‘I’m here with a police officer. I’ll ask him what to do.’”

Johnston said she was told people were being saved from the back of the building — to go across the hall into someone else’s apartment to be rescued from their balcony.

“I didn’t understand why I couldn’t be saved from my own balcony, when that’s clearly where I was and it would have been easiest to see me,” she said.

“But in that moment, I trusted, even though as soon as I opened the door, my gut said I shouldn’t have gone into the hallway.”

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Backpack and cat carriers in hand, she took a deep breath and headed out into the blackened, smoke-filled hallway.

“I finally found the door to another apartment but the door was locked and it was hot. So I had to go back. But I couldn’t find my way back and I went too far. I was underneath what should have been the fire alarm.”  

Arson fire
Kelsey Johnston, 34, was rescued from the fourth-storey balcony of her apartment building after an arson fire on Jan. 25, 2024. Her three cats died in the fire. Supplied Photo edm

She clawed her way back to her own unit, and threw her cat carriers in before collapsing.

“I thought ‘Oh this isn’t so bad.’

“And then I died.”

Disoriented from smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning, Johnston described hearing someone calling to her to get up.

She got to her knees.

She found one carrier, which was open, and assumed her cats got out.

“I crawled out to the balcony, in shock and trying to breathe, and I sent my sister a text message to look for me because my building was on fire.”

It seemed like an eternity had elapsed. It was just 14 minutes from when she opened the door.

With no voice left, she couldn’t call for help. She flicked the patio light on and off and on.

She heard the ladder coming forward.

She felt a spray of water from a fire hose.

“My babies were still in there, so I went back one more time to try and get them.”  

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Beaten back by smoke and exhaustion, she used the last of her strength to climb over the balcony and onto the ladder, getting down as far as the third floor before her knees buckled. Firefighters helped her down from there.

She was carried away from the fire.

Someone put a coat over her.

“I couldn’t breathe. I was scared. I thought maybe I did die or something,” she remembered.

She staggered to her feet in shock, and someone placed her on the jump seat of an ambulance that held three other survivors.   

“I passed out and fell sideways out of the ambulance and I was on the ground again. The last thing I remember was someone putting a marker on my neck. They were afraid my airway was going to close on the way to the hospital.”

Johnston woke up three days later in the Misericordia hospital.

Arson fire
Kelsey Johnston, 34, was rescued from the fourth-storey balcony of her apartment building after an arson fire on Jan. 25, 2024. Her three cats died in the fire. Supplied Photo edm

She was in hospital for a week, and credits a support system of friends, Reiki healing and prayers for her quick recovery.

Manslaughter charges

Jason Zabos, 44, was initially charged with arson, disregard for human life, mischief, obstruct peace officer, and a breach of a court order. He was freed on a release order by a justice of the peace.

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Then Edmonton city police shared some shocking news in April. Police had received a missing person report on April 10, seeking the whereabouts of 70-year-old Ricardo Olivares. 

“Olivares’ family had not heard from him since Jan. 5, and reported him missing after discovering the apartment building where he lived had burned down,” police said in a news release.

On April 22, the city police missing persons unit, with help from Edmonton Fire Rescue Services (EFRS) and the police canine unit, conducted a further search of the building rubble and discovered Olivares’ remains.

The EFRS public information office later released a statement, saying the case is still under investigation.

“This is a tragic situation and one that we would never want anyone to experience. Our thoughts are with the family and friends of the person who passed away,” said the statement.

“The members of Edmonton Fire Rescue Services are dedicated to ensuring the safety of people, property and the environment and at every call work incredibly hard to mitigate any loss. We know that our members feel this loss, as well.”

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Zabos has since been charged with manslaughter, and remanded into custody. His next court appearance is set for May 22.

Johnston remembers passing Olivares at the mailboxes.

 “He seemed like a kind man,” she said.  

Johnston plans to attend Olivares’ May 24 funeral.

That his body lay undiscovered in rubble for months is beyond comprehension, she said.

“It’s horrible. What I can’t even imagine is how that even happened, with the amount of people in and out of there. The police, the firemen, the investigators, the restoration team, the looters.”

Johnston’s own life is very different from before the fire.

“I am still unable to go to work. I’m dealing with a lot of PTSD surrounding the incident, which I’m working through, and it’s taking time,” Johnston said.

“I can’t focus well, and I can still smell and taste the plastic. That still is haunting me.”

While priceless things were lost, her renter’s insurance should help replace some things from the water-damaged ruins of her former home.

“I just hope that out of a great tragedy comes something good, and I’m trying to heal the best way that I can so that I can in turn help others.” 

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