‘PEOPLE WOULD HAVE DIED’: Teen's selfless action saved lives in TCN fire

She is being hailed as a hero, but Shenika Chornoby says she was just doing what she thought was right when she ran into a burning building and risked her own life to help get others out before it was too late.

“I didn’t really have time to think, I just saw the fire and went in, because I knew there were people and there were kids in there that probably needed help,” Chornoby said.

“And I know that I did the right thing, because if I didn’t go in there people actually would have died.”

A fire on Feb. 11 destroyed an eight-unit apartment complex in the Tataskweyak Cree Nation (TCN) where 10 families and 49 people were living.

The fire left those 49 people homeless in the remote community located more than 950 kilometres north of Winnipeg, but despite the huge and destructive blaze, there were no fatalities.

But some say if 17-year-old Chornoby had not been on the scene that day they believe there would have been lives lost in the fire. Chornoby did not live in the building but was walking by it on her way to work on Feb. 11, when she noticed smoke and saw that the building was on fire.

Chornoby said she ran into the building to alert residents of the fire, and she said she grabbed two children who were in the building and took them to safety.

“They looked really scared and I grabbed them and helped them out of the building, I covered one with my jacket and another with a blanket and when they were safe I just walked in again, because I wanted to make sure no one else was still in there,” she said.

When she went back into the building the second time, she said it was just moments before firefighters arrived, and she said she helped those emergency workers to find another child that was still in the building, and that child was also taken out of the burning building to safety.

“There was a mom freaking out because she said, ‘my baby is in there’ and then more people showed up and they got the baby safely out the window,” Chornoby said.

When she walked out of the building a second time, Chornoby, who suffers with asthma, collapsed due to smoke inhalation and was administered CPR by a bystander.

“I was in there pretty long the second time,” she said. “I remember it was very smoky, but I didn’t feel scared, but when I got out I remember feeling sick and that’s when I collapsed.”

Chornoby was airlifted to HSC Children's Hospital in Winnipeg, where she was treated for injuries due to smoke inhalation, as well as for a dislocated shoulder and a damaged ribcage caused by the CPR that was administered.

She said she did not wake up until three days after she arrived at the hospital, and that is when people told her that she had likely saved lives on Feb. 11, and she said that is when some started calling her a “hero.”

Chornoby has now been discharged from hospital and is back in her home in TCN and expected to make a full recovery, although she admits she doesn’t like attention and feels somewhat “overwhelmed” by how much she is now getting from people in her community.

“I know the community wants to hold an event, and I am not much of an attention person and not comfortable in big groups, but I understand why they want to do it,” she said.

“At first I was overwhelmed but I understand and respect why people are reaching out, because things could have been a lot different if I hadn’t gone in, and people probably would have died.”

While speaking to the Winnipeg Sun last week just days after the fire, TCN Band Councillor Nathan Neckoway said he and others in the community are certain that lives would have been lost if not for the actions of Chornoby on Feb. 11.

“I believe we would have lost some community members if not for what she did,” Neckoway said.

“She is a hero.”

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun