Nick McKenzie and his grandmother Shirley McKenzie.
It’s an interview 35 years in the making. It was meant for only me to perform. I had trouble sleeping the night before this one. The morning of, I had knots in my stomach and couldn’t eat. I worried about what to wear. The subject, Nick McKenzie, is not a celebrity. He’s a 35-year-old hard-working father of two with no huge claim to fame.
But I had pictured what McKenzie would look and sound like. I had imagined the moment of our meeting countless times. He is, in fact, the very person my father, Baz Landry, rescued in 1978 from a horrific Halifax house fire.
Nick was only eight weeks old when dad and his peers saved him.
The dramatic rescue has been discussed in the second and third parts of this series (Halifax Magazine November 2012 and April 2013). Here it is described verbatim in a write-up found in the Investiture documents handed out, in September 1980, when my father received a national Medal of Bravery at Ottawa’s Rideau Hall:
“Acting well beyond the call of duty, Basil Landry, a Halifax fireman, saved two-month old Nicholas MacKenzie [sic] from a fire in his home on 2 October 1978. From outside the house, the baby’s upstairs bedroom was pointed out to Lieutenant Landry, who climbed a trellis leading to a veranda situated below and to the side of the bedroom window. Smashing the window, he pulled himself into the room. Being without his air-pack, he stayed close to the floor and made his way to the crib. After giving the baby mouth- to-mouth resuscitation he carried him to safety.”
The account doesn’t tell you the baby’s room was filled with black smoke when my father entered, without that breathing apparatus, searching on his belly for McKenzie. It doesn’t reveal that every firefighter I have interviewed, who was present and aided Landry, confirms the baby and my father only had about one minute left before they both would have died in the perilous conditions.
I was 13 that day in 1978. I remained unaware of exactly how close it really came until 2012, when I started heavily researching. Landry never talked about it. He said he was only doing his job.
But, it is a big deal for me, his only child, who happens to be a journalist. So, logically, and responsibly, who else should do this interview? As details unfolded, it became much more than another story or another interview.
It led to this magazine series and my book, published in fall 2013 by Pottersfield Press, called The Sixty Second Story, which recounts the rescue and years that followed, in detail, as well as many other stories from and about our dedicated first responders.
This is the 35th anniversary year of the 1978 McKenzie rescue.
My one regret is that my father died before my meeting took place. I wish I could have reunited them instead. The road to my reunion with Nick McKenzie was bumpy and very uncertain. It included me appearing, twice, on a Halifax radio talk show, appealing for help, thanks to journalists Rick Howe and Yvonne Colbert.
In the summer of 2007, a little more than a year after my father died, I was invited to speak on-air with Colbert, who was filling in for Howe. After I set up the back story of the 1978 rescue, I invited listeners to call. They included: McKenzie’s mother, Kim Gibson, and an aunt, Charlene McKenzie Meade. I have also met and interviewed both women. Those exchanges are in the book.
After the 2007 radio show, I spoke to Kim, off-air. But, I did not press the issue of meeting her son. Frankly, I was not ready to tackle the in-depth research and interviews just one year after Landry’s passing. I was still in deep grief.
By 2012, I knew the anniversary of my father’s historic 1978 rescue was approaching. I also understood, on a deeply personal level, it was time to start this journey. Once people heard what I was attempting to do, they did not hesitate to help. Landry would be shocked at how many people were on board making my dream—to reunite with the person dad saved—come true. Besides my on-air radio appearances, there have been countless behind-the-scenes phone calls, social media contacts, cold-calling on doors, mixed with plenty of aid from the firefighting community, family, friends, former neighbours of the Gibson family, and even complete strangers.
The much-anticipated meeting with Nick McKenzie happened Friday, December 14, 2012, two days before what would have been my father’s 80th birthday.
I arrived at Kim Gibson’s home where the reunion was to take place. Shirley McKenzie, Nick’s grandmother, at whose home the fire had occurred, first joined me. We spoke at length about the horrific, close call at 3390 Federal Avenue. The McKenzie family no longer lives there. When she finished speaking, there was a knock at the door.
Nick walked into his mother’s living room towards me. I got up and hugged him. I never thought about it, or, hesitated. I simply reacted. I am not sure what he thought of the physical contact, but he was gracious nonetheless.
Nick is about 5’9” tall and has a medium build. He is handsome with a shaven head. He has a big smile. He speaks quietly and in one-word answers, at first.
He grew up hearing all the stories about what had happened. Many of the very firefighters involved in his rescue had wondered aloud to me: “Do you know how he is doing?”
Nick McKenzie has gone on to live a full and happy life, without any medical issues stemming from the fire. McKenzie has two children: son Mason and daughter Alexa.
His current job involves danger, an ironic career choice given the frightening drama that had unfolded in his early childhood. He works with Remote Access Technology (RAT) based out of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, “We do rope access. We rappel to get into position. For example, we have worked on the smokestacks in the [Halifax] harbour.”
Heights scare him: “I do fear heights. When I get up to about five hundred feet, my legs start to shake a little. When I start working, it goes away.”
His work with RAT has led him to being involved in another close call, the second one in his lifetime. “I had one of the main [safety] lines on my ropes burn through. It was one and a half years ago, in Fort McMurray.” McKenzie was 100 feet up in the air working on a steam pipe, when his safety line separated. “The mainline broke because it was sitting on a hot pipe. I fell onto my back up line; I fell about two feet. We always use two [lines].” It’s terrifying to think about what it must have felt like when his fall started, one hundred feet up, and when it stopped after his dropping only two feet.
Nick McKenzie’s life had been saved again—this time by a rope.
Before our parting, I gave him a special gift; an original 1978 photograph of Baz Landry, taken in his dress uniform and standing in front of Rescue 2, the fire truck on which he arrived at 3390 Federal Avenue to save baby Nick.
Thirty-five years after the extremely close fire call, I imagine that old, black and white, glossy snapshot hanging in McKenzie’s home; protectively watching over him and his two children.
Author’s Note: This is the final of my four-part series paying homage to first responders and my late father, Basil (Baz) Landry, a veteran Halifax firefighter, and Medal of Bravery recipient, who died in 2006. As we conclude with a special interview, I would like to thank Halifax Magazine, especially editor Trevor Adams, for supporting this project throughout 2012–2013.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.