Vancouver’s fire chief says an investigation will determine whether a sprinkler system, fire alarms and fire extinguishers were working properly when a fire ripped through the Winters Hotel Monday, leaving it a blackened shell that will have to be demolished.
Residents of the building say sprinklers did go off on Friday, when there was another fire in a room that was put out quickly.
“It flooded out the first floor and my girlfriend’s room on the first floor,” said Jeremy Walker, a Winters Hotel tenant. “The ceiling had collapsed three days ago. There was so much water damage.”
John, a front desk staffer at the building, told CBC that when the fire started Monday he and another tenant had used fire extinguishers until they were empty, but could not stop the fire from spreading.
Investigators will also try to determine whether the catastrophic Monday fire was deliberately set. Fire Chief Karen Fry said the April 8 fire was an accident.
The Winters residence was a 79-room single-room occupancy hotel that was housing 71 tenants at the time of the fire. Everyone has been accounted for except one person who may have been staying with friends, Fry told reporters Tuesday. An Atira staffer later told The Tyee the person had been accounted for.
Five people were hospitalized, and two remain in hospital in stable condition, Fry said. Firefighters had to rescue six tenants, one of whom had jumped from the building to escape the fire “and was located in the back side of the building in a really precarious spot,” Fry said.
The building also housed several shops and a restaurant on the ground floor. The four-storey brick building is now so damaged that it’s at risk of collapse and must be immediately demolished. The city has closed off part of Water and Abbott streets to keep people away from the hotel, which was built in 1907.
The fire has also displaced another 73 tenants from the Gastown Hotel, an SRO right beside the Winters. The Gastown has been damaged by toxic smoke and is not safe to live in right now, Fry said. Although there are air purifiers working to clean the air in the Gastown, officials could not give a date for when residents could expect to return.
“The smoke is toxic and it's full of contaminants, and carcinogenic, and [the Gastown] cannot be occupied at this time,” Fry said.
SRO buildings are old hotels that feature small rooms and shared bathrooms. Because of their age and the vulnerable tenants who live in them, they’re at higher risk for fire, Fry said. But all SRO hotels in Vancouver are required to have working sprinkler systems, which are usually effective at preventing fires from spreading.
The Winters Hotel is owned by a private landowner, Peter Plett, and is operated by Atira Property Management Inc. with funding from BC Housing. APMI also operates the Gastown Hotel, which is owned by the province, and the Colonial, another SRO building next to the Gastown which is also owned by Plett.
All three buildings are run as supportive housing for low-income tenants, many of whom have disabilities, substance-use issues, chronic illness or mental illness, or other challenges.
Some of the tenants at the Winters had moved there five years ago when another SRO, the Balmoral, was ordered to close because the building was in such bad shape. A tenant who declined to give his name said he had lived at the Balmoral for 20 years before moving to the Winters.
“It’s a good place, but people are not nice,” the tenant said, referring to the Winters Hotel. “Sometimes they get angry.”
Walker said the Winters had provided him with the most stable housing he’d had in 20 years. He watched in disbelief as firefighters battled the flames: he said he’d returned from a medical appointment to find the building on fire and all his belongings gone, including his government-issued identification.
Tenants are currently being housed at the Japanese Hall and at other locations throughout the Downtown Eastside, and Atira Women’s Resource Society — the non-profit that owns APMI — has called for donations of clothes, pet supplies and food for displaced residents.
Advocates for tenants say they’ll be keeping a close eye on the relocation process. Eris Nyx works for the Tenant Overdose Response Organizers program organized by the SRO Collaborative, training tenants to respond to overdoses, organize with their neighbours and support each other with food and cleaning supplies.
Nyx says she’s worried that residents will be offered spots in homeless shelters rather than permanent housing.
“Our main thing is to come alongside folks, and if they’re like, ‘They’re trying to stick us all in a... shelter, we don’t want that,’ to go in and advocate for people. We want for people what they want,” Nyx said.
At a press conference Tuesday, city officials and a BC Housing vice-president said they were committed to working together and with Atira Property Management to rehouse the Winters residents, but did not have specific information on where people would be permanently housed.
In an email, BC Housing staff said they are committed to making sure no one becomes homeless, and the agency would have more details about long-term housing options in the future. BC Housing provides $1.5 million to Atira Women's Resource Society for operating subsidies for the Winters Hotel.
The Tyee has reached out to Atira Women’s Resources Society for comment.
Have you been displaced from the Winters Hotel or the Gastown Hotel? We’d like to hear from you. Please get in touch with reporter Jen St. Denis at [email protected].