The pastor of Victoria’s Ukrainian Catholic Church says someone poured gasoline through his mail slot in the moments before a massive fire erupted at his Fernwood home and led to his 11-year-old daughter being seriously injured early Wednesday.
Father Yuriy Vyshnevskyy says around 1 a.m. his wife heard a noise on the front porch and when she went to see what it was, she saw gasoline being poured through the home’s mail slot.
“Kind of a distinct sound, kind of like ‘gulp, gulp,” he said.
Vyshnevskyy is the pastor of the Ukrainian Catholic Church of St. Nicholas on Caledonia Avenue in Victoria and lives next to the church with his wife, three daughters, and cat.
In the early hours of Wednesday, around 1 a.m., their house caught fire — and he says he is not sure what the motive for setting the fire was.
Firefighters examining the house after an early morning fire. (CHEK News)
In an interview with CHEK News, Vyshnevskyy said after his wife saw the gasoline being poured through the mailbox, she ran upstairs to get him but by the time he got downstairs the fire was lit.
Vyshnevskyy tried to extinguish the flames, but it was spreading too quickly, so he had to run outside while his wife and daughters were still on the second floor.
The children had to jump from the second floor while he called for someone on the street to call 911.
His 11-year-old daughter suffered a severe cut on her arm from the broken glass and needed surgery. Police described her injuries as initially life-threatening, but first aid and hospital treatment reduced them to non-life-threatening.
Dan Atkinson, acting fire chief of the Victoria Fire Department, says several 911 calls were received around 1 a.m.
“On arrival we were met with very heavy fire conditions coming from the front side of the building, and we were met with a lone occupant that was perched just outside the second floor window, who required rescue with a ground ladder.”
The person who the department rescued from the second floor window was Vyshnevskyy’s wife, who had helped drop her three children out of the window down to people ready to catch them.
“The children were dropped from the second floor to the dad and to other bystanders that were providing assistance,” Atkinson said. “It’s an incredible story of everybody coming together to make sure that everybody got out safely.”
Atkinson said firefighters faced additional challenges due to the age of the building.
“It was a very aggressive fire and given the type of construction and the age of the building it proved very challenging from a fire suppression perspective,” Atkinson said. “Fortunately we were able to get a pretty good handle on it relatively quickly.”
Vyshnevskyy says his family is shaken up by the event, and the family cat is at the vet clinic.
Atkinson says when firefighters first found the cat, they thought it had died.
“Once we made entry into the structure and conducted our primary search, we did locate a cat who did not demonstrate any signs of life,” Atkinson said. “We were able to remove that cat, provide oxygen, and I’m happy to report the cat is now stable and recovering in an animal hospital.”
The fire was started on the front porch, shortly after one of the occupants saw gasoline being poured through the mail slot. (CHEK News)
Vyshnevskyy says he has not received any threats leading up to the fire and is unsure if the motivation was personal or related to the war in Ukraine, but police confirmed Wednesday afternoon they were investigating the fire as an arson.
“Who would want to burn the family, with children, while they’re asleep?” he said.
Const. Cam MacIntyre, spokesperson for Victoria Police says they have not yet ruled out this was a hate crime.
“There have been questions surrounding this, given the structure’s proximity to a Ukrainian Catholic Church, very close, there’s a connection there between the family and the church,” MacIntyre said. “Obviously something that we are looking at. There is nothing clear to indicate motive at this point other than the fact that it was an arson.”
VicPD’s Major Crimes Unit is asking anyone with information, any witnesses or those who may have dashcam or surveillance footage of the area of Cook Street and Caledonia Avenue between midnight and 1:30 a.m. Wednesday to contact them at 250-995-7654 extension 1, or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.
“Our goal in this is to locate a suspect or suspects, arrest them, and bring them before the courts,” MacIntyre said.
In the meantime, Vyshnevskyy and his family are staying with parishioners as the house is not liveable.
The Canada Helps website is accepting donations for the pastor and his family through the Ukrainian Catholic Church’s St. Nicholas Parish. Anyone making a donation is asked to specify that it is meant for the Vyshnevskyy family.
A GoFundMe campaign has also been launched to help them.
Despite the horrors his family has lived, Yuriy Vyshnevskyy says they are grateful for the outpouring of support.
‘That’s the Victoria that I know. That’s the community.”
Officers are assisting Vic Fire in the 1100-blk of Caledonia Ave after a structure fire at a home early this morning. One person was transported to hospital w potentially life-threatening injuries, which are now considered non-life-threatening. The investigation is ongoing. #yyj
— Victoria Police (@vicpdcanada) April 20, 2022
– With files from April Lawrence.