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3 girls jump from 2nd floor to escape arson at home of Ukrainian church priest

'Who would want to burn a family with children while they are asleep?'
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Victoria fire investigators work at home on Caledonia Avenue that was damaged in a fire on Wednesday, April 20, 2022. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Three young girls jumped from a second-storey window at their burning Fernwood home early Wednesday and were caught by their father and a neighbour. Police suspect the fire was an arson attack.

All the girls — aged five, seven and 11 — got out safely, but the 11-year-old went to hospital for stitches after cutting her arm when she landed on shattered glass.

Their father is Yuriy Vyshnevskyy, priest at St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church, which is next door to the family’s home.

The injured girl lost a lot of blood and her wounds were initially thought to be potentially life-threatening, Vyshnevskyy said, but the injury turned out to be limited to soft-tissue damage.

Victoria police said the fire at the wooden heritage home, near the corner of Cook Street and Caledonia Avenue, was arson.

Vyshnevskyy said his family was targeted. He is convinced the blaze was set deliberately around the front porch. There was a smell of gasoline, which he thinks was the accelerant.

He and his wife are trying to “wrap our heads around” what happened, how it happened and who did it, he said.

“Who would want to burn a family with children while they are asleep?”

Asked if the fire was somehow related to the war in Ukraine, he said he didn’t want to think that way.

He said hasn’t had any threats because of the war or anything else. “Nothing,” he said. “This was a shock.”

The home, where the family has lived for about six years, serves as a parish rectory for the church. Even though the home was badly damaged, the church was not affected. The home on the other side was unscathed, as well.

Vyshnevskyy said he is a heavy sleeper, but his wife was awakened by a noise about 1 a.m. before realizing there was a fire.

At first, he tried to put it out with water, but “it just was spreading too fast,” Vyshnevskyy said.

He ran outside through the back door then realized his wife and children were on the second floor, with the fire by then underneath the staircase.

Black smoke was filling the home, Vyshnevskyy said. “You could hardly see what was happening.”

His wife and the children went to a window, with Vyshnevskyy waiting below, by this time joined by a neighbour from across the street.

The five- and seven-year-old were caught easily when they jumped, but it was a little harder with the eldest and she was injured, Vyshnevskyy said.

By then, the Victoria Fire Department was on the scene and used a ladder to get Vyshnevskyy’s wife out.

Acting Fire Chief Dan Atkinson said crews found “heavy fire conditions” at the front of the house when they arrived. Police said the front entryway was fully engulfed in flames.

Atkinson said the wife was hanging on at a window with smoke billowing over her head.

“We were able to rescue her and she was able to provide us with information that all other occupants of the house had escaped.”

Vyshnevskyy said he is extremely grateful that his family is safe.

“You have to be thankful,” he said. “God is watching. God is protecting us.

“There is no point for us to be focused on anger.”

The family’s cat was revived after being found showing no signs of life. Firefighters administered oxygen with a special attachment for pets that fits over the snout.

“We were able to save the cat so that’s a great news story there,” Atkinson said. “The cat is recovering at Central Victoria Animal Hospital.”

Vyshnevskyy said that for his wife to wake up when she did is amazing, because even a minute’s delay could have made things so much more dangerous. “I don’t want to think what could have happened.”

On Wednesday, the family was being helped by friends and church members. “The house will be unoccupiable for some time,” Atkinson said.

Vyshnevskyy said they will look for another place to stay while repairs are made.

He expects to cancel regular 9 a.m. church services through Friday, but plans to hold a Sunday service.

Victoria Grando, office manager at the Ukrainian Cultural Centre, said hearing about the fire was “devastating.”

“It is horrible, of course,” she said. “It’s just awful.”

The news is hard for the Ukrainian community to believe and she is waiting for police to get to the bottom of it, Grando said.

The fire caused traffic to be diverted, including B.C. Transit routes along Cook Street.

Major Crimes Unit detectives are investigating and asked for witnesses and any dashcam or video footage from the area of Cook and Caledonia between midnight and 1:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Call Victoria police at 250-995-7654, extension 1, with any information or report anonymously to Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477).

jbell@timescolonist.com

> A fundraising effort is underway through CanadaHelps, with those wishing to donate asked to designate if it is for the family or restoration of the heritage home. There’s also a fundraiser at gofundme.com; search for organizer Andriy Fabrikov.