In the early hours of a frigid February morning in 1933, a devastating fire at the Imperial Hotel in Tisdale took the lives of eight people. Among the victims were Mrs. Clara Couture, owner of the hotel, and her three daughters, Dorothy “Dolly” Couture, age 22, Margaret Couture, 19, and 13-year-old Simone. Others who died in the fire were Emma Roy, the hotel chambermaid from McKague; Jack F. Marsh, commercial traveller for Adams Brothers Harness Company of Saskatoon; Fraser Paige, commercial traveller from Calgary, Alta.; and – a few days after the fire – William John “Sandy” McPherson, the 65-year-old manager of the hotel.
The coroner’s inquest later determined the terrible fire was caused by a cigarette butt or match carelessly tossed into the wood box beside the stove in the hotel lobby.
At 5 a.m. on Feb. 8, 1933, Mah Choon, the hotel’s restaurant manager, rose to prepare breakfast for six commercial travellers who were leaving Tisdale on the 6:10 train. The temperature outside was 45 degrees below zero and there was a strong northwest wind. After the travellers left the restaurant, Choon noticed fire in the hotel’s rotunda. He ran back into the kitchen for a bucket of water, but by the time he returned it was too late – the fire was raging. Choon called, “Fire! Fire!” from the foot of the stairs and was immediately answered by Mrs. Couture. Choon and his two restaurant partners, Roy Mah and E. Kin, then escaped the burning building.
Within five minutes, the entire two-storey building was engulfed in flames. So severe was the fire that the plate glass windows of the store buildings across the street cracked under the intense heat – despite the 45 below zero temperature. Screams of the dying could be heard by the frenzied volunteer firefighters who were unable to force their way into the inferno.
Mrs. Couture had been ill for some time and was confined to her bed at the time of the fire. Her eldest daughter, Dolly, a graduate of the nursing program at St. Paul’s Hospital in Saskatoon, had arrived in Tisdale a few days before the disaster to nurse her mother. When the fire broke out, the three Couture daughters rushed to their mother’s bedside. All four perished in the same room – they apparently did not even attempt to escape through a window. At the funeral, the remains of the three Couture girls were placed in one coffin. Only their brother Edward Couture, who operated the Kinistino Hotel also owned by his mother, remained to mourn their loss.
Sandy McPherson, the hero of the Imperial Hotel fire, died in the Tisdale hospital four days later. McPherson had rushed from room to room, warning the guests to save themselves. When the fire became too intense, he made a dash for the front door, running through a solid wall of fire. He emerged – barefoot and badly burned – onto the street. While in hospital, McPherson continually asked how everyone from the hotel was doing. Due to his critical condition, however, he was not informed of the deaths of the people he had so desperately tried to save.