Demolition of Old Montreal building to begin as police search for victims of fire

Demolition of Old Montreal building to begin as police search for victims of fire
Investigators survey the scene after a fire in Old Montreal on Sunday, March 19, 2023, that gutted a heritage building. Several people are still unaccounted for.

The father of a young woman who remains missing after a fire swept through an Old Montreal building on Thursday wants the city to ensure all rental units have proper fire escapes.

Charlie Lacroix, 18, lived in the Montreal suburb of Terrebonne, Que., and was staying in an Airbnb in the building with a friend after spending the day in the city.

Her father, Louis-Philippe Lacroix, said he’s been told his daughter called 911 twice within several minutes, unable to get out of the unit they were staying in, which had no window and no fire escape.

“How can someone rent an apartment, whether it’s for a day, or a year, or whatever with no way to exit?” he said in an interview Sunday.

Seven people are still believed to be missing after the fire, Montreal police spokesman Const. Jean-Pierre Brabant said Sunday.

Lacroix said he’s hopeful the fire will lead to action from the city to ensure Airbnbs and apartments have proper fire exits.

“This happened, there’s nothing we can do, now do everything you freaking can to avoid another story like that,” he said.

Lacroix said he has no words to describe how he’s feeling other than “sad.” He said his daughter was someone who “had everything in front of her.”

Earlier on Sunday, investigators surveyed the scene and took photos from a cherry picker crane before the rest of the building started to be dismantled.

The fire department has said the building will be taken apart “brick by brick” to ensure the scene is safe for investigators.

Alina Kuzmina, who was staying in the building with her husband after attending a concert in Montreal, said she feels lucky to be alive.

Kuzmina, who lives in Cornwall, Ont., said her husband was awakened Thursday shortly after 5:30 a.m. by a loud noise and noticed the glow of flames under the door.

The couple quickly gathered a few items — leaving most of the possessions behind — and escaped from the semi-basement unit they were staying in by breaking a window, she said in an interview Sunday.

As she left the building, she said she saw a man jumping out a window.

“There was no way out,” she said. “The staircase was on fire.”

While Kuzmina she’d noticed two fire alarms in the unit when they arrived, she had never thought to question whether they were working. She said she noticed they hadn’t gone off once she was outside.

“I remember thinking, ‘Where are the fire alarms? Why am I not hearing anything? I saw two of them in the unit, why did none of them go off?'” she said.

While the couple was able to escape with a few scrapes, Kuzmina said it would likely have been worse if they were staying on a higher floor.

Commander Steve Belzil, the head of the arson squad that has taken over the investigation, said Saturday police haven’t ruled out the possibility that more victims would be found in the ruins.

He told reporters that police don’t know how many of the missing were tourists staying in short-term rentals and how many lived in the building permanently.

Nine people were injured in the fire. As of Sunday afternoon, two remained in the serious burn unit of the Centre hospitalier de l’UniversitĂ© de MontrĂ©al, both in stable condition.

Firefighters originally believed that only one person was missing, but later learned that several apartments in the building were being used as Airbnb rentals.

City officials said Airbnb-style short-term rentals are illegal in the area where the building is located.

Alexandre Bergevin, a lawyer for the building’s owner, Emile-Haim Benamor, said Sunday that Airbnbs in the building were not being operated by his client, but rather by tenants, adding that steps had been taken to stop the practice.

He said in a text message that the alarm system had been replaced in 2019 and was regularly tested.

The building’s layout is complex, he wrote regarding the emergency exits. “It has always been deemed compliant in the past.”

Ben Breit, the global head of trust and safety communications at Airbnb, said in a statement that the company is providing support to those affected and assisting the police investigation.

“Our hearts go out to the victims of this tragedy, and to their families and loved ones,” he said in an email.

The company did not respond to questions about whether the fire will lead to policy changes or efforts to limit use of the platform by hosts operating illegally.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 19, 2023.

The Canadian PressThe Canadian Press

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