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Rights + Justice

The Winters Hotel Fire Victims Have Been Identified. Their Families Have Questions

A fatal SRO fire took the lives of Mary Ann Garlow and Dennis Guay.

Jen St. Denis 19 May

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

Family members of Mary Ann Garlow and Dennis Guay say they want answers about how the Winters Hotel fire happened and why there were delays in reporting their loved ones missing after the deadly April 11 fire.

Garlow, 68, and Guay, 53, were identified as the victims of the fatal April 11 fire by Vancouver police on Wednesday. The BC Coroners Service is still investigating the deaths.

The Winters Hotel at 102 Water St. was a 79-room SRO operated as supportive housing by Atira Property Management Inc. with funding from BC Housing. The property is owned by Peter Plett.

Garlow had lived in the Downtown Eastside for over 40 years and was devoted to caring for her son, John, who was injured when he jumped out of a window to escape the fire and is still recovering in hospital. Garlow, a residential school survivor from the Oneida Nation, had lived in the Balmoral Hotel until it was shuttered by the city in 2017 because it was not safe to occupy.

“She was very soft spoken and quiet and gentle, but she had a good sense of humour,” Garlow’s niece, Misty Fredericks, previously told The Tyee. “She was a homebody, but she was always very helpful.”

Guay grew up in Dawson Creek. He lost much of his hearing as an infant, after a fever. But he was passionate about music, learning to play the piano and then the guitar.

“This is amazing for someone with such profound hearing loss, and it truly was his passion,” his sister, Kirsten Conforti, said in an email message sent to The Tyee.

Fredericks and Conforti say they have questions about the fire and how tenants were accounted for afterwards.

Sprinklers in the building had been turned off following a previous fire on April 8, and the building alarm was not working at the time of the fire. While Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services has determined the fire was accidental and was started by a candle, the department is continuing to investigate.

The day after the fire, BC Housing reported that all the tenants had been accounted for. But on April 22, 11 days after the fire, two bodies were discovered as the building was being demolished.

APMI CEO Janice Abbott told CTV News that in the days after the fire, Garlow was reported missing to police on April 12, was mistakenly accounted for by a provincial welfare worker on April 15, then reported missing again on April 19. But the Vancouver Police Department disputed Abbott’s account, saying police were not notified until April 15 that Garlow and two other residents were not at any of the temporary shelters for displaced residents.

Guay was not reported missing until April 26. The 53-year-old man had previously stayed at Union Gospel Mission’s shelter, and case workers there were worried when they couldn’t reach him and he didn’t show up to a health appointment, which was out of character for him. It was those case workers who reported Guay missing to police, who notified Conforti and her parents. Guay’s parents then provided DNA samples to help identify him.

Caithlin Scarpelli, a communications manager with APMI, previously told The Tyee that staff did not think the second body was Guay because Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services had publicly stated the person was a male in his 20s. But VFRS said they had never made any public statement about the identity of the remains.

Scarpelli also said APMI had been told repeatedly that Guay was at Union Gospel Mission’s shelter. UGM says Guay never turned up, and no one from APMI contacted them to check until April 26, the day UGM reported Guay missing.

“Because of the information we were provided and in combination with the time lapse, we remained hopeful Dennis would be located,” Scarpelli told The Tyee on Wednesday.

“This news is obviously devastating to those of us who knew Dennis.”

Conforti said “there are not enough words” to express her family’s gratitude to UGM “for everything you have done for Dennis, this case and our family.”

Fredericks has called for a coroners’ inquest into her aunt’s death to examine what happened and any changes that need to be made to prevent a similar tragedy.

“For the sake of others, changes need to be made,” Conforti wrote in a statement sent to The Tyee.

“Everyone needs and deserves to be safe and accounted for during emergencies. We have questions about how this tragedy occurred and how it was handled in the aftermath and hope to see answers.”

Fredericks said she has called the coroner several times to get more information about an inquiry, but has not heard back.

“I want to stress how I feel about that,” she said. “Mary has passed from the fire and nothing can change that, but I want to be heard.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Housing

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