Five months after vandals ruthlessly attacked Uncle Gabe’s Friendship Centre in Fort Smith, hacking walls apart with axes and smashing windows, computer monitors and TVs, there have been no repairs done - or answers given.
RCMP said they are still investigating, but no arrests have been made in connection to the crime, meaning concerned employees of the centre are no closer to understanding why they were a target the night of June 11.
“Why would somebody be an enemy of a Friendship Centre? You know what I mean?” asked Veronica Johnny, the centre’s interim financial officer. “I just think maybe we were an easy target, or something.”
She has some hypotheses – a drug or alcohol-influenced wrecking spree being one of them – but until the RCMP have another lead, she might never know.
“It was just total destruction. All they wanted to do was destroy,” said Tina McNeill, the centre’s executive director. “There were all kinds of goodies if you wanted to steal…They didn’t touch anything.”
Following the incident, which left broken glass and fire retardant spray covering the majority of the upstairs office area, the centre was closed for two weeks for “emergency clean up” crews to make the space usable and get employees back to work.
But doing so has not been easy, said McNeill. The residual effects of the break in and destruction continue to disrupt daily life at the Friendship Centre.
“It’s hard to work under these conditions, because everything’s laying around and you can’t find anything, and where things used to be, they’re not there any more because they got moved,” said McNeill.
Nearly every office in the building was torn into using chrome piping or axes. Filing cabinets were beaten and ripped open, their contents scattered; computers were hacked to pieces.
But worse is the fire retardant that continues to linger on surfaces, which staff say is having adverse health effects, despite the insurance company’s confirmation that the contents of the extinguisher the vandals sprayed throughout the storage room are non-toxic.
“It’s not a health hazard, but still the effects of it can be felt by the employees,” said Johnny. “From the day I started working here, I started getting headaches. And other employees have reported the same kind of thing. Our lips go a little strange, our eyes get itchy.”
Both Johnny and McNeill said the downstairs area where the youth room, gym and lunch program are based have not been affected by the fire retardants.
“There’s no threat to our children who come for the lunch program or who come to use the gym,” said Johnny.
Just as Johnny claims RCMP were “slow to respond” to the incident after receiving a phone call from a woman claiming she heard “banging” in the centre the night of the break in, she and McNeill feel the adjusters hired by their insurance company to set up repair work have been “slacking.”
“It just seems like the insurance has been taking a really long time,” said Johnny.
A contractor from Yellowknife was at the centre to do initial assessments last Thursday, but still no contract has been awarded to repair the gaping holes in the walls. Adjusters are still waiting for a second bid on the tender.
RCMP Sargeant Kevin Platford said he empathizes with the staff’s exasperation, but feels his staff responded to the call in a “timely fashion.”
“No matter how fast people get there, it’s going to seem like forever,” he said. “But it seemed very timely in my perspective.”
Centre staff have no idea what the total cost of damages will be, said McNeill, but the first emergency clean up cost $10,000 on its own. A fourth clean up is set to take place in the near future to remove the residual film of the retardant tracked throughout the building. McNeill said she just wants closure.
“Somebody had to have seen something,” she said. “I mean this is a small community. People out there know and I wish they would come out and say, I saw this person or that one.
“We run a youth centre. If such violence occurs here, how are kids going to feel safe coming here?”