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Rights + Justice

He Escaped an SRO Fire. Two Weeks Later, He Died

Kyle Johnson’s family is hoping for more answers after the 33-year-old had a heart attack.

Jen St. Denis 5 May

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

The family of a 33-year-old man who collapsed and later died just two weeks after escaping a fire are hoping a coroner’s investigation can provide answers about his death.

Kyle Johnson was living at the Gastown Hotel when the Winters Hotel next door burned down on April 11. The fire sent thick plumes of smoke into the Gastown Hotel and caused the displacement of all 144 residents of both the Winters and the Gastown.

Johnson sent texts to his mother describing the situation.

“He said he had to grab whatever he could and get out,” Johnson’s younger sister, Jessica Burton-King, told The Tyee.

Although all residents were initially believed to have escaped the fire, two bodies were later found in the Winters as the building was being demolished. The two single-room occupancy hotels had been operated by Atira Property Management Inc. as supportive housing in Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood.

After escaping the fire, Johnson was relocated with other tenants to 124 Dunlevy St. The newly completed building will replace Roddan Lodge, an aging social housing building, and the Evelyne Saller Centre, a drop-in space for unhoused and precariously housed people.

Since the new Evelyne Saller Centre isn’t yet operating, the city allowed Atira Property Management to use the space as an emergency shelter to house residents who had been displaced by the fire.

On the morning of April 24, Johnson complained of shortness of breath to staff at the shelter, then collapsed. A paramedic’s report obtained by The Tyee says CPR and resuscitation were not started until firefighters arrived, 30 minutes after Johnson lost consciousness.

But an APMI manager who spoke with Burton-King said staff did start CPR when Johnson collapsed and waited on hold with 911 for 10 minutes before getting through to a dispatcher.

An incident report provided to The Tyee by Atira Property Management says Johnson told staff that he was having an asthma attack and one staff member stayed with him and called 911, while another went to get his inhaler. He was given several puffs of his inhaler, but then lost consciousness.

According to the incident report, staff began CPR at the direction of the 911 dispatcher and also administered Narcan, an overdose reversal drug. Both firefighters and paramedics arrived around 25 minutes after the 911 call was first made, according to the incident report.

When paramedics arrived, Johnson was taken to St. Paul’s Hospital. There, doctors discovered that Johnson had had a cardiac arrest and had blood clots in his lungs and around his heart, according to Burton-King. (According to the incident report provided by Atira Property Management, shelter staff were told he’d had a pulmonary embolism when they followed up with the hospital.)

Johnson never recovered brain function or regained consciousness. Three days after he arrived in hospital, his family made the decision to take him off life support. He died on April 29 after final visits from his mom, his ex-girlfriend, his nine-year-old son and Burton-King.

A spokesperson for the BC Coroners Service confirmed that the coroner is investigating Johnson’s death.

Johnson was 10 years older than Burton-King, and she remembers him more as a father figure than a brother because of their age difference.

“He’s super caring,” she said. “He’s been through a lot in his life. He made sure, no matter what, to take care of me and make sure that I was OK before he even worried about himself.”

Burton-King hadn’t seen Johnson in person since 2014, but she’d kept in touch with him by text, badgering him until he responded to her. She didn’t know much about where he was living; in February, he texted her to say he was living in downtown Vancouver. She’s since learned he had been living at the Gastown Hotel for around a year.

Burton-King said her brother was ashamed about his struggle with addiction and that led to him avoiding contact with her.

“He was very embarrassed about his choices and his illness, so he chose the route of staying away,” Burton-King said. “But I think he realized that wasn’t going to keep me away.”

Burton-King visited her brother in hospital frequently before he died, sitting for hours at his bedside. She’s remembering the moments they shared together when she was a kid, when he taught her to catch a baseball, or how he insisted on keeping his white sneakers and T-shirts scrupulously clean.

Burton-King hopes the coroner’s investigation will provide more answers about what happened to her brother — whether the smoke he may have been exposed to during the fire played a role, and whether anything might have been different if the emergency response had been faster on the day he collapsed.

“No family should have to go through this,” she said.

* Story updated on May 5 at 1:22 p.m. to correct the date Kyle Johnson died in hospital.  [Tyee]

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