A quiet night at home for Josh Schaefer and Alisha Lamers turned tragic in the early hours of Nov. 20, shortly after Schaefer stepped outside for a cigarette.
"All of a sudden I heard this faint beeping and someone from upstairs suddenly start yelling: 'Fire,'" Schaefer told CBC News.
"I started screaming at them to call 911, I was telling them my girlfriend's still down there," he said.
Schaefer tried to get back inside but was blocked by heavy smoke and fire. Apartments are required under the fire code to have two exits, but their basement unit had only one.
He and Lamers spoke through the apartment’s single window, which had bars.
"I was telling her to get out of there as quick as she could, but I guess there was too much fire in the living room … She wasn’t able to get out."
An upstairs neighbour, Michael Kimber, tried to help — smashing at the window with a shovel, while a frantic Schaefer pulled at the bars.
"It was just love and agony and he was so deeply in both," said Kimber.
Lamers was found with no life signs when emergency crews arrived a few minutes later. She was resuscitated on the scene but later died in hospital.
Officials believe the fire started in the basement, the only unit that had a working smoke alarm. Fire officials say a house with multiple rental units is required to have alarms in each unit that are connected to each other.
Schaefer wants stricter laws for landlords and fire safety.
"A landlord should have to get an apartment, before renting it, completely certified, by an insurance company," he said. "So that when you go out to rent an apartment and you're like basically required to see a certificate."
The cause of the fire remains unknown. The fire marshal and Toronto police are investigating.