Victoria police say they are investigating a confirmed arson attack as a possible hate crime after the family of a Ukrainian priest narrowly escaped their burning home early Wednesday morning in the Fernwood neighbourhood of the city.
Three girls had to be lowered by their mother out of the second floor window to their father and two bystanders waiting below, according to Dan Atkinson, acting chief of the Victoria Fire Department. The mother then had to be rescued by firefighters with the help of a ladder.
"On arrival, we were met with very heavy fire conditions coming from the front of the building and we were also met with a lone occupant that was perched just outside the second floor window who required rescue with a ground ladder," said Atkinson.
"It's our determination that the fire was deliberately set by persons unknown. And so now the police will handle the ongoing investigation with respect to arson."
The building was home to Father Yuriy Vyshnevskyy and his family. Vyshnevskyy is the parish priest at the Ukrainian Catholic Church of St. Nicholas, located next door.
Vyshnevskyy says he, his family and their pets are now safe, but his eldest daughter had to be treated in hospital for injuries from the escape.
"The first two younger kids, they made it safe into my arms and the arms of the neighbour," he told Robyn Burns, host of CBC's All Points West. "At the time when our oldest daughter jumped, she landed on some of the glass that was shattered on the ground."
"It's not life-threatening. She's safe. She's with us ... we're happy to have the whole family together under one roof."
Gasoline poured through mail slot, priest says
According to Vyshnevskyy, his wife woke up around 1 a.m. PT after hearing noises. She assumed it was one of her children walking around the house, then realized the sounds were coming from the front porch.
"The next thing she heard was the sound of ... emptying the bottle and the smell of gasoline," he said. "Someone was pouring [it] inside the house through the mail slot."
"She yelled, she called me and said, 'Yuriy, get up, someone's pouring this into the house' ... Up until that point, there was no fire."
But almost immediately after he was alerted to the gasoline, Vyshnevskyy says, someone struck a fire which spread "really quickly."
By the time he got downstairs, the front room was already ablaze. As smoke filled the house, he says he had to abandon his plans to put out the fire himself, and then escaped through the back door.
Outside, he saw his wife and children through the upstairs window, gasping for air.
His neighbour then helped encourage the stranded children to jump — their only safe way out of the house.
"They trusted us and and they were brave," Vyshnevskyy said.
The priest says he has been overwhelmed by the support shown by the community, with people offering the family food, clothes, and even places to stay.
"It's just incredible. And we are so grateful. We are so blessed by this community that we live in," he said.
"From the neighbours ... to people across across the city and beyond, you know. We're getting messages from different provinces."
'Consequences could have been much worse'
Victoria police said they are investigating whether the crime was hate motivated.
"There is nothing to indicate motive other than the fact that it was an arson," said Const. Cam MacIntyre, Victoria P.D. media spokesperson. "The family is very fortunate to have gotten out of there relatively safely ... the consequences could have been much worse."
All five of the family members were treated for smoke inhalation, according to MacIntyre.
Atkinson said the parents deserve credit for their quick thinking.
"It's really an incredible story and a testament to both the parents of the children to ensure their safety by closing doors behind them to help prevent rapid fire spread into into the areas where they were ... It certainly could have been much worse."
MacIntyre said police are hoping people come forward with information and tips about the incident.