Agincourt Recreation Centre thriving after devastating 2019 fire

The Agincourt Recreation Centre, which serves as a major community and swimming hub, was gutted by a major fire in 2019. Nick Westoll has more on how the building was restored and how it serves residents.

It’s been nearly four years since a devastating fire ripped through Scarborough’s Agincourt Recreation Centre, but those who visit and run the popular community hub say it’s doing better than ever after an extensive restoration.

“Agincourt Recreation Centre is our only centre that has a pool within northeast Toronto and when the fire happened, we were totally devastated because it closed so many programs,” Rhoda Potter, the president of the Agincourt Village Community Association, told CityNews on Friday.

“The rec centre is our really only closest means of being able to meet.”

She said with a surge in residential developments and an existing lack of recreational facilities in north Scarborough means the centre is “oversubscribed,” adding friends have told her they’ve had a tough time getting into aquafit classes on occasion.

“Agincourt Rec Centre needs to be expanded, it desperately needs expansion,” Potter said. “Our infrastructure has not kept up with the building we already have and the building that is proposed.”

She recalled walking past the facility the day after the Jan. 31, 2019 blaze.

“It looked like just one big icy blob,” Potter said. “We’re a very close community in Agincourt and people were in tears because of the loss.”

RELATED: John Tory promises fire-ravaged Agincourt Recreation Centre will be rebuilt

Gary Sanger, the aquatics coordinator of Agincourt Recreation Centre, recounted how he got a call late in the afternoon while driving home advising there was smoke in the building. After the on-duty staff evacuated everyone inside, they called him back to say the conditions got worse.

“It was surreal. I drove up the street on Rural (Avenue) and it was incredible and my first thought was, ‘Hopefully the damage is limited.’ This is a significant operation for us, for our communities in Scarborough and my first concern was how long we might not be able to reenter the building,” Sanger said.

Like many who were at the scene of the fire that day, he remembered how bitterly cold it was — conditions fuelled by a wind blowing to the north.

Toronto Fire Services Chief Matthew Pegg was there too during the peak of firefighting operations. While speaking with CityNews on Feb. 1, 2019, he described just how impactful the weather was to his crews.

“Everything freezes immediately. Everywhere they’re going, they’re walking and having to navigate ice. The ladders are covered in ice, the aerial ladders are covered in ice, so it was a tough night,” he said at the time.

RELATED: Toronto Fire says Agincourt Recreation Centre blaze was accidental

Firefighters could be seen with ice layers on their uniforms and gloves, requiring them to be frequently rotated out of their positions.

“When you see the firefighters and they’re crusted in that layer of ice, that oftentimes is OK. What becomes unbearable is when they need to get in and get warmed up and get something to drink, and they start to melt. Once they melt, you’re never, never warm again, so it’s miserable,” Pegg said.

In addition to environmental conditions, the roof structure at the time fed the fire in a major way. Two-inch wooden planks were below a foot of insulation, which allowed the fire to travel and made it difficult for firefighters to access. It took close to 40 hours to extinguish the fire.

All the water that was poured onto the building eventually pooled in the basement of the property, taking out the pool filters and the compressors for the arena’s ice rinks.

No one was injured in the blaze. The damage estimate was nearly $25 million, but officials said a large portion of that was covered by insurance. Officials said weeks into the investigation that it was accidental and City of Toronto staff late on Friday it was subsequently determined a “failure of an exterior light fixture” caused the exterior wood siding to catch on fire.

“The damage was significant and we joke around a lot ‘Can swimming pools burn?’ The answer is yes they can, but the great thing is from an emergency perspective everyone was safely removed from the building,” Sanger said.

“I don’t think you can really appreciate the amount of damage now until you go back and see some of the pictures.”

The shell of the Agincourt Recreation Centre pool and the waterslide after a fire in 2019 (left) and the view of the pool full of debris from the lifeguard office (right).

The shell of the Agincourt Recreation Centre pool and the waterslide after a fire in 2019 (left) and the view of the pool full of debris from the lifeguard office (right). CITY OF TORONTO / Gary Sanger

Lifeguards and instructors were sent to various pools and programming was split up until the reopening in 2021. The hockey arena was able to reopen for the 2019-2020 hockey season.

Sanger documented the aftermath as well as the journey throughout the restoration. During an interview, he laid out various photos to illustrate how the pool area was particularly hard hit.

“The roof was gone. What survived the fire was the deck, the tank and the pillars. Some of the pillars had some minor damage, but that was helpful,” Sanger said.

“People would show up just to take pictures and you could just see the devastation.”

Remarkably, he said there were parts of the building with little to no damage. The trees in the front lobby survived the fire as did the facility’s original bulletin board.

“The fire actually left most of the shallow end of the building untouched but it blew across the courtyard into our large banquet hall and then just continued to burn through the facility in that direction,” Sanger said.

He also praised the firefighters for mobilizing to defensively stop the fire from spreading to the area at the northeast corner of the structure as winds fanned the flames.

Sanger said those charged with doing the restoration took extra care to protect places like the pool deck where rubber was put onto the wheels of machinery.

“Every step was taken to try to maintain what was not damaged in the fire,” he said.

Throughout the project, Sanger said he was often asked to have a hands-on role and ended up picking various tile colours. He said the staff collectively picked blue for the signature waterslide that had to be reconfigured, leaving the former bright yellow colour in the past.

Sanger said despite it all, there were positives to be found with the restoration.

“While it was horrible, there was also a little bit of a blessing here because we could upgrade some standards. In our Snoezelen room, we put a lot of brand-new equipment. In our kitchen, we made it more accessible and made it more beautiful,” he said.

“It’s a lot more beautiful than it was before and I think it’s more accessible and more available for our community.”

When the facility finally reopened in July 2021, any hopes for a big welcome party were dashed due to COVID-19 restrictions at the time. Sanger said staff were forced to do drop-in programs at Scarborough’s second-biggest recreation centre.

“It’s just such an important part of their lives,” Sanger said, referring to the high number of seniors who visit the facility.

In a month’s time, Sanger — who grew up in Scarborough — will be retiring. He said to end his career at Agincourt Recreation Centre is “special” to him.

“You really see the value that a community centre like this plays in the community after you see some of the devastation and while it was nice to go to some of the other recreation centres around and see some of the people from Agincourt, I think this was their home and they wanted to come back here,” he said.

Gary Sanger stands where his office was, and currently is, at Agincourt Recreation Centre as crews cleared away the debris from the 2019 fire.

Gary Sanger stands where his office was, and currently is, at Agincourt Recreation Centre as crews cleared away the debris from the 2019 fire. CITY OF TORONTO / Gary Sanger

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