Tossed cigarette destroys Hertz building
The Hertz car rental agency building at 414 Ontario Street was gutted, along with a Dodge Caravan beside it, after a blaze at Wildfire restaurant next door on Thursday May 18, 2017 in St. Catharines, Ont. Karena Walter/St. Catharines Standard/Postmedia Network
If Sergio Gutierrez is bucking for Hertz employee of the month, he’s probably in a league of his own.
On Thursday, the St. Catharines man was cleaning a Volkswagen at the 414 Ontario St. business when he heard a crackling sound. It was unusual.
He got out of the car and saw flames from the restaurant patio next door shooting towards the glass Hertz office kiosk and parked cars.
Gutierrez alerted his boss inside the office and then started moving cars with full tanks of gas that were directly in the line of fire.
A Toyota Camry. A VW Golf. A Chevy SUV. He tried to get to a second Camry but the heat was too much.
“Everything happened split-second. My driving skills were on the dot,” he said later, surrounded by glass shards, debris and the odour of smoke. “I thought I was going to die, honestly.”
The Hertz kiosk and a Dodge Caravan were completely gutted in the fire, which St. Catharines firefighters said was started by a discarded cigarette on the patio of Wildfire restaurant.
The restaurant patio and car agency are separated by a wooden fence that had cars reverse parked against it.
“I tried my best to put them far away. Everything lit up fast,” Gutierrez said. “It’s my first week working here. I think I did a good job.”
Hertz manger Albert Kittoe was in the glass enclosed office at his desk with his back to the patio when fire broke out at 12:40 p.m. He said there’s not a lot of air flow in there, so he didn’t smell anything.
“I was working on my computer not knowing there was chaos behind me,” he said.
All of a sudden, someone from the street drove into the lot and started honking their horn at him. That’s when Gutierrez also ran over.
“Everybody was trying to get my attention,” Kittoe said.
He came outside, saw the fire and ran back into the office to pull out the electrical plugs, grab his car keys and a fire extinguisher. By then the back side of the mini van parked next to the office had caught fire. Tires were popping.
“I realized my fire extinguisher was too small. There was no way I could get at it,” he said.
Kittoe said three vehicles were impacted and he was going to check others for smoke damage.
St. Catharines fire platoon Chief Dave Upper said with the wind blowing the way it was Thursday, a tossed cigarette would keep burning.
“It’s kind of like fanning the flames,” he said.
Damage is estimated by firefighters at $150,000 total for both properties.
Upper said St. Catharines firefighters had numerous calls in the west end of the city Thursday for fires in plants and mulch beds due to tossed cigarettes.
The Hertz building at 414 Ontario St. was left looking like a broken glass box, with shattered pieces across the pavement and between cars. The interior was charred and insulation hung from the ceiling. Pieces of blown out insulation dotted a nearby vehicle while another SUV had melted molding.
Khan Latouche, area manager of Hertz, arrived from Toronto to check out the damage at the building.
“It’s totalled. The van’s totalled. The Camry’s probably totalled too,” he said.
He said the rental agency would continue to work out of another building on the property.
“We’re still open. We still have cars to rent.”