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Deadly blaze was a life-changer for Colin Young, 98

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Colin Young (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

Colin Young is one of the few remaining survivors of a deadly fire at Mount Allison University eighty years ago.

Four students died, countless others were injured throwing themselves from upper level windows to escape the blaze.

“It was the early hours of December 16, 1941,” said Mr Young, 98. “Someone pounded on my door shouting ‘Come on, get out! The building is on fire!’”

Then 18, he had just settled into his first year at the Canadian school.

“The dormitory was four or five stories high,” he said. “There was no elevator and there were wooden stairs, a wooden hall and wooden flooring. The place was years old.”

He left his “good shoes” in his fourth-floor dorm, thinking he was coming back.

“I put on my winter coat over my pyjamas and put on a hat,” he said. “It was really cold outside. I went to the middle stairs where there were these grand sweeping arms. I looked down the stairwell and could see this pit of roaring flames. I said, ‘Young, you better get out of here and use the other staircase on the extreme end of the building.’ It was simple and straight forward from there."

When he got outside he was pleased to see many of his classmates milling around, calling out to find out who was there and who was not.

“I just stood there and watched all my stuff burn up,” Mr Young said.

He remembers the relief he felt when an acquaintance called out his name. They hung together for the rest of the night and became lifelong friends.

The fire was later ruled an accident although many people didn’t agree with the finding. Some wondered if it was related to the bombing of the naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, only a week before.

Bermudian Colin Young survived a massive fire in a dormitory at Mount Allison University in December 1941 (Photograph supplied)

Mr Young had a different theory: “It was an evil pyromaniac in the community,” he said.

Sackville residents housed students and gave them money to buy clothes and text books.

Long after his possessions were replaced, Mr Young remained unsettled. He could not decide what to do with his life.

“I thought maybe I would study architecture, but Mount Allison did not have an architecture programme,” he said.

He was also feeling increasingly guilty about being a student while the Second World War raged on.

“People would say, ‘What is your occupation young man?’” he said. “They would say, ‘Student? Aren’t you ashamed? You should be in uniform.’ I began to have dark thoughts. I was not contributing. My parents were saving every single dollar they could earn for my education. This was not good enough.”

In 1943, he left school and returned to Bermuda on a Pan Am flying boat.

“There were comfortable seats and waitresses running around with trays. It was quite a thrill.”

It was the first time he had seen his parents, Edmund and Gertrude Young, in several years. They had not been able to afford to bring him home in the summers. Instead, he worked in local shipyards earning money.

Once at home, wanting to do his part for the war effort, he joined the Bermuda Militia Artillery, one of the forerunners of the Bermuda Regiment.

“They were looking to put together another contingent,” he said. “They sent you off to Canada to various camps for firearms drills or explosives, or whatever.”

When the war ended in 1946, he took on a job at Bermuda Fire & Marine, now BF&M. His intention was to earn a bit of money while he figured out what he wanted to do, but it was an interesting time. The company had just started selling car insurance.

“It wasn’t hard to sell,” he said.

Bermuda had only just allowed people to own cars, and many were eager to have one.

Mr Young stayed with the company for 40 years, working his way up the ranks. He retired in 1985 as general manager.

He and his wife Patricia will celebrate 60 years of marriage in October. They have one son, Reed, and two grandchildren.

As a family they lived in Onaway, the house Mr Young’s father built on Pitts Bay Road in 1923. At the time he was running Young Brothers, a dry goods store on Queen Street that sold everything from men’s suits and ties to boots and canvas shoes.

In September of 1929 he travelled to New York to order two years’ worth of merchandise. A month later the stock market crashed, heralding the Great Depression. Business dried up and, in 1931, the company was sold.

“Those were difficult times for our family,” Mr Young said.

Suddenly, even six pence for a movie was too much. Their parents kept Mr Young and his three sisters in private school by renting out rooms to tourists.

His father was bound and determined that Mr Young would have English manners, go to an English school and would dress like an Englishman.

“He just loved the English and looked at them as gentlemen,” he said. “They knew how to dress – in his mind.”

Sometime around the age of eight Mr Young was sent to Saltus Grammar School because it was modelled closely on the English education system. Students studied to take Cambridge examinations.

“The headmaster had a cane and would give you three of his best if you misbehaved,” said Mr Young, the school’s oldest alumnus. “It was good for me. And during the end-of-year ceremony we all wore black caps and gowns.”

The plan was for him to go to a prestigious boarding school when he was 15, but the Second World War put an end to that.

“Everything was cancelled,” Mr Young said. “Instead of going to England I did another year at Saltus.”

Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens every Wednesday. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or jmhardy@royalgazette.com with the full name and contact details and the reason you are suggesting them

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Published February 16, 2022 at 7:50 am (Updated February 17, 2022 at 8:04 am)

Deadly blaze was a life-changer for Colin Young, 98

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