It was an emotional day in Richmond on Sunday as two children who narrowly escaped death from a house fire 15 years ago got to meet the firefighters who saved them.
Brandon and Kaitlin Laxa were four and three years old, respectively, when a fire broke out at their townhouse on the night of Nov. 5, 2004. Firefighters smashed through the upstairs windows to rescue the children and their grandfather while the fire raged on the lower levels.
Their parents, Theresa and John Laxa, arrived at the home to find it surrounded by fire crews and could only watch helplessly as their children were put into ambulances on stretchers.
WATCH: Our original report by Catherine Urquhart from the scene of the house fire on Nov. 5, 2004
Brandon suffered serious burns to his arms, while Kaitlin suffered smoke inhalation and wasn’t breathing when fire crews found her.
On Sunday, both of them said getting the chance to meet the people who got them out of that burning house was an incredible experience.
“It’s amazing, just being able to thank them for the hard work they put in that day,” Brandon said. “Without them being there and putting that training to use … we wouldn’t be here today. That’s something I can’t thank them enough for.”
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Kaitlin said hearing about how the firefighters had to perform CPR on her that night to keep her alive was overwhelming.
“I’m happy to be alive,” she said. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have my friends or my family. I’m happy to be here.”
Mike Welsh, acting captain with the Richmond Fire Rescue Department was one of the firefighters who responded that night and helped administer CPR to Kaitlin. At the time, he had only been a crew member for four years and felt compelled to check on Kaitlin in hospital two days after her rescue.
“I was still learning how to cope with everything and I’m so glad I went there that day because (what) I saw there was life and a chance of recovery,” he said.
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Fifteen years later, he said he’s happy to see both Kaitlin and Brandon have been able to live full and healthy lives after that terrible night.
“Most of our calls don’t have this kind of a happy ending,” he said. “I’m just glad everyone is living their lives and moving forward. It’s good to see.”
The event was organized by Jen McElgunn, a Richmond firefighter and a camp counsellor at Burn Camp, a summer camp for burn survivors where she first met Brandon and Kaitlin.
“When Brandon told me last year about what happened … I realized it was a really cool, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for everyone to come around full circle and get closure,” McElgunn said.
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The event also had an additional impact on Brandon, who recently graduated from the Justice Institute of British Columbia’s firefighter program, a career path he decided on shortly after high school.
“It’s not only a way for me to give back what’s been given to me, but being around firefighters my whole life and seeing the work they put in on duty and off duty…it shows that it’s more than just a career,” he said. “They’re really trying to change people’s lives for the better.”
No one on Sunday was happier or more overwhelmed than Brandon and Kaitlin’s mom, Theresa, who still thinks about that night 15 years ago and how it could have turned out much worse.
“I can’t thank them enough,” she said through tears. “It’s not enough to say thank you.”
—With files from Jill Bennett and Catherine Urquhart