Six people still missing in the fire of a heritage building in Old Montreal last Thursday
Sunday, police and fire officials were searching the rubble of a three-storey heritage building in Old Montreal for six missing people believed trapped after flames engulfed the site last Thursday. One person has been confirmed dead.
In a news conference Sunday evening, fire and police officials confirmed that the body was recovered at 6:45 p.m., and has been taken to a forensic lab to be identified.
Flowers were left across a courtyard from the beige stone building in the historic Old Montreal district as workers using a crane tried to secure the badly damaged three-storey structure on Sunday afternoon.
“We are sensitive to what the families of the missing (people) are going through,” said Montreal fire operations chief Martin Guilbault.
“Our goal is, for the investigation, to share light … on this tragedy and provide answers for the families.”
Guilbault said fire services began preparations to dismantle the second and third floors of the building in order to gain access to the fire scene.
It took more than 100 firefighters to contain the fire at the building, which broke out on Thursday morning and left several injured, said Marie-Eve Beausoleil, a spokesperson for the city’s fire department, the Service de securite incendie de Montreal.
Montreal Police spokesperson Jean-Pierre Brabant said investigators had reason to believe there were victims inside.
“These are extremely trying times for the families of the missing and the injured,” said Alain Vaillancourt, a Montreal city council executive committee member responsible for public security, in a statement.
“The current priority is to secure the scene to allow the search for the victims.”
Apartments in the building were used both by long-term residents and guests who were staying there short-term after booking lodgings through Airbnb, Beausoleil said on Saturday.
There is no known connection between the units used for short-term rental and the blaze. The fire’s cause is unknown.
The father of a young woman who remains missing said he 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 earlier 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.”
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 said 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.
City Commander Steve Belzil, the head of the arson squad that has taken over the investigation, said on Saturday that 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’Université de Montréal, 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 article was reported by Reuters and CTV News.