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Rights + Justice

Inside the Winters Hotel as It Burned

Residents and business owners describe terror and confusion during the fatal Vancouver SRO fire.

Jen St. Denis 7 Jun

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

Residents of the Winters Hotel are sharing their experiences from the April 11 fire that destroyed their homes and resulted in the death of two residents.

They described a chaotic and terrifying effort to help neighbours and get out of the 107-year-old building as thick black smoke filled halls and stairwells. Several residents lost beloved pets, and many are still dealing with trauma.

The Tyee interviewed 13 residents who said they didn’t see anyone doing a regular fire watch in the days leading up to the fire, when the building’s sprinkler system was not working. After a fire investigation report was completed in June 2022, Vancouver Fire Rescue Services told The Tyee that video evidence showed a fire watch was being done before the April 11 fire.*

The owners of four businesses who had stores on the ground floor of the building also say they were not told the building was on fire watch and they didn’t know the sprinklers weren’t working in the days leading up to the fire.

“We would have treated that like a power out, which would then affect our security,” said Jason Gallop, the owner of a watch business called Roldorf and Co. Had he known the sprinkler was offline, Gallop said, “someone from our team would have been in the building 24 hours.”

Neither Atira Property Management Inc., the property manager for the building, or Peter Plett, the building owner, responded to requests for comment for this story.

While it was initially reported that everyone had been accounted for, two bodies were found 11 days after the fire as the building was being demolished. One has since been identified as Mary Ann Garlow, a 68-year-old residential school survivor who was devoted to caring for her son, John, and had lived in the Downtown Eastside for over 40 years.

The other was Dennis Guay, a 53-year-old man who was deaf, but had taught himself how to play piano and guitar. Garlow had lived in the building since 2017, while Guay had moved in in 2020.

Two separate but overlapping photos show a woman on the left smiling and wearing a white blouse and black jacket. The photo on the right shows a man with a big smile standing outdoors with a tree in the background.
Mary Garlow, left, and Dennis Guay, right, didn’t make it out of the building. Their bodies were recovered from the rubble of the building days after the fire. Photos submitted.

Shop owners, residents say they weren’t told of fire watch

The Winters Hotel had stood on the corner of Abbott and Water streets in Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood for 107 years. Upstairs, 79 rooms, most with shared bathrooms, were operated as supportive housing for low-income people by Atira Property Management Inc., with funding from BC Housing. On the ground floor there were six stores and a restaurant called the Flying Pig. The building’s owner, Peter Plett, owns several other properties in Gastown.

Fires are common at single-room occupancy hotels. Vancouver Fire Rescue Services responded to 312 fires at SRO buildings in 2021, almost one a day on average.

On April 8, a fire started in room 216, Raven Heaton’s room at the Winters Hotel. Heaton believes the fire was started on purpose and that an accelerant was used. He says he was in his room at the time, and his clothes caught fire. The sprinklers went off and the fire was put out with little damage.

After the April 8 fire, Vancouver Fire Rescue Services turned the sprinkler system off until it could be serviced by a fire suppression company — common practice for any building when the sprinkler system deploys.

According to the fire service, it can take anywhere from a few hours to several days for contractors to come and reset a sprinkler system.

Records obtained by The Tyee through a freedom of information request show that after the April 8 fire, the fire service ordered the sprinkler and alarm be serviced and a 24-hour fire watch be put in place, but did not order the fire extinguishers to be serviced or replaced.

Matthew Trudeau, a public information office with the service, said the shop owners on the ground floor of the building should have been notified of the fire watch by the building’s owner.

“If a fire watch has been issued to an owner because the sprinkler system for an entire building needs repair or maintenance, then the whole building would be subject to that fire watch,” Trudeau said in an email sent to The Tyee. “The owner should inform all occupants of the fire watch requirement.”

Business owners who spoke to The Tyee said they were never informed about the fire watch or that the sprinkler system wasn’t operating after April 8.

“I looked into what the fire watch is and they have to inform each store,” said Dino Pessione, the owner of a leather goods shop called Nika Design. “They have to have a guy on premises doing surveillance and letting tenants know what's going on. None of that happened.”

Nada Vuksic, the owner of Bruce Eyewear, said no one in her store was notified that the sprinklers and alarm weren’t working and that the building was on fire watch.

“There was no notification that the premises were under any kind of special watch,” she said.

Ben Horne, the owner of a shop called Lemongrass House, said his business was never told about the fire watch. “We were not issued with any notification,” he said.

The 13 Winters residents who spoke to The Tyee for this story say they didn’t see regular fire watch patrols, weren’t told about the fire watch and didn’t see notices posted about the fire watch.

Lance Tanner, a tenant, and Sean Brandon, a guest of Tanner’s who had been staying with him for four months, said they spent much of the weekend inside the Winters, visiting from room to room and often in the hallways.

“I never saw the fire watch,” Brandon said.

Brandy Mingo, another Winters tenant, said she was frequently “in and out” of the building over the weekend, and she didn’t have “a clue” that the sprinklers were off or the building was on a fire watch.

Jennifer Hansma said she did not see Winters staff doing the fire watch between April 8 and 11, and didn’t see any notices posted. “There was nothing,” she said.

“We’re always out in the hallway, our door is always open,” said Heaton. “There was definitely no fire watch,” added Heaton’s partner, Natalie St. Martin, who lived with Heaton in the Winters.

Several tenants who are now living at the Columbia Hotel, another APMI-operated SRO building, say the Columbia has recently been on fire watch for several weeks, and they have seen staff constantly patrolling the halls and notices about the fire watch have been posted.

“In this building right now they have signs, fire watch signs, but they didn’t have them then at all,” Tanner said, comparing the Columbia with the Winters.

Residents describe fast-moving fire

Tenants, business owners and others who were inside the building during the fire describe a chaotic scene inside the single-room occupancy hotel. The building’s alarm never went off, they said, and tenants awoke to find hallways obscured by thick black smoke.

With the sprinkler system turned off, the fire spread rapidly through the building. Some people walked through flames to get out of the building. Others had blisters where their bare skin had touched the hot hallway floor.

On the morning of April 11, just before 11 a.m., Brandon was sitting in the hallway visiting with Heaton in room 216 when he noticed smoke coming from a room down the hall.

When Heaton and Brandon went to take a look, they saw flames.

“I saw a little fire and I was like, ‘Oh shit,’” Brandon said. He grabbed a mop bucket that was nearby and threw the water on the fire.

“That’s all we could find around us,” said Heaton, who said he saw candles burning underneath the bed in the room where the fire started. The fire service said earlier the blaze was started by candles.

A man and a woman sit on a bed, facing each other in mid-conversation. The woman holds two small dogs, one under each arm.
Sean Brandon, left, talks to Candice Mclaurin at the Columbia Hotel. Brandon and Mclaurin were both living at the Winters Hotel at the time of the fire. Photo by Jen St. Denis.

Brandon described their frantic effort to find fire extinguishers. He said he ran to one end of the hallway to get a fire extinguisher, but the canister that should have been on the wall was missing. He grabbed an extinguisher that was lying on the ground, but it was empty.

When he ran to the other end of the hall to find the fire extinguisher, it was the same thing.

While Heaton and Brandon say they believe they were the first people in the building to discover the fire, Vancouver Fire Rescue Services has said the fire was discovered by a building staffer during a fire watch patrol.

Fire services also said fire extinguishers were working and no other residents interviewed by The Tyee have reported personal experience with fire extinguishers that didn’t work.

Brandon said he then ran to room 215, where he’d been staying with his friend Lance Tanner for the past four months, to get the fire extinguisher Tanner had bought and kept in his suite. That one worked, Brandon said, but by then, the fire had gotten bigger.

“But by the time I got back, it was fully engulfed,” Brandon said. “I used that fire extinguisher, but it didn't do anything.”

St. Martin had run downstairs with another resident and across Abbott Street to the Dominion, another SRO hotel also operated by APMI. “I ran across the street to the Dominion here and grabbed four fire extinguishers… and handed them out to people to put out the fire,” St. Martin told The Tyee.

A woman and a man stand in front of a pile of rubble from a building that was torn down after a fire.
Natalie St. Martin, left, and Raven Heaton stand near the pile of rubble left after the Winters Hotel was demolished. The couple described the frantic search for working fire extinguishers as the fire spread. Photo by Jen St. Denis.

After hearing loud crashing noises upstairs and seeing smoke pouring out of the building, store owner Dino Pessione ran upstairs to help. He saw a building staffer called John using one extinguisher, while another tenant held another.

Later on the street that morning, John told CBC journalist Stephen Quinn, “Me and a tenant almost got it out — the fire extinguisher went dry.” After that, John said, the fire continued “like a sheet of newspaper” and he couldn’t do anything but run around the building trying to get everyone out. “Not everyone made it,” he told Quinn.

Pessione said by the time he got up the stairs, the fire had gotten so big he didn’t bother using the fire extinguisher he’d brought from his store. Pieces of the ceiling were falling on his head, and he later realized he’d burnt his arm.

Brandon and Tanner had abandoned the effort to try to put the fire out and were knocking on people’s doors, trying to tell residents to get out of the building. Brandon said he was kicking down doors if they wouldn’t open. On the third floor, Tanner knocked on Dennis Guay’s door.

“He looked out and I said something and he just told me to shut the door,” Tanner said. Later, he would learn that Guay was hard of hearing and couldn’t hear at all without his hearing aids. Nearly two months later, Guay’s body would be identified as one of two victims of the fire.

Speech and Hearing BC, an association for speech pathologists and audiologists, told The Tyee that people like Guay may need assistive technologies “like vibrating or flashing light alert systems” to alert them to a fire. The Tyee asked Atira Property Management Inc. whether such an alert was in place for Guay, but did not receive a response.

Pessione started helping people at the top of the stairs get down, many of them screaming and crying. Because the building alarm hadn’t gone off, many of the residents had woken up to find the hallways full of smoke and were disoriented. There was now so much smoke and fire that it was impossible for some people to get out of the building through the main entrance. That left escape through the windows by firefighters on ladders, or out the fire escapes.

From the fourth and seventh floors of an apartment building across Blood Alley from the Winters, Mathew Fleury and Jordan Saniuk watched in horror as flames consumed the back of the building, where the fire was most intense.

“I saw a bunch of people, screaming, heads out the window,” Saniuk said.

Fleury watched as firefighters rescued a man he believes was Mary Garlow’s son John, who had jumped from a window into a narrow passage between the Winters and the Gastown Hotel, an SRO hotel right next to the Winters. John is still in hospital, recovering from broken bones in his feet and legs.

The back of a brick building showing six windows. Four of the windows are filled with yellow and orange flames and smoke is coming out of some of the windows.
A photograph taken by Mathew Fleury, who lived across the alley from the Winters, as the back of the building burned.

Because of smoke and water damage, 73 Gastown tenants also had to leave their homes and have still not been able to return.

Tanner said he helped bring mattresses out of the SRO hotels next to the Winters to put under the fire escapes on the Blood Alley and Water Street sides of the building. Fleury said he watched several people jump from the Blood Alley fire escape, desperate to escape the flames.

Brandon said he went back into the building three times to try to help people get out. On his third try, the smoke had made the building as dark as night, so he put his head down close to the ground. Through the gloom, he could see someone’s feet, and he guided one more neighbour out of the building.

Fire services investigation underway

Vancouver Fire Rescue Services has done an initial investigation and has found that the fire was started accidentally by an unattended candle, was discovered by building staff doing a fire watch and has confirmed that the building’s alarm did not go on during the fire. Trudeau said the service’s full investigation will be completed in around four weeks.

While most of the Winters tenants have been rehoused since the fire, some are still waiting: Sean Brandon wasn’t a tenant, but had been staying there for months with Tanner, and said he still doesn’t have permanent housing.

Brandy Mingo, a Winters tenant who tried to get back into the building after the fire to rescue her pet turtle but was stopped by police, also said she hasn’t yet been rehoused.

A gray cat sits on a bed, looking intensely at the camera.
With a burned lip and damaged claws, Smokey the cat was rescued a week after the fire and reunited with Winters resident Lance Tanner. But other residents are still mourning the beloved pets they lost in the fire. Photo by Jen St. Denis.

The Winters residents say they’re also living with trauma from the fire. For tenants who have been rehoused in the Dominion Hotel, right across the street from the Winters, the pile of rubble is a constant reminder of everything they lost.

“I’ve had a little cough, but what’s more needed is counselling,” said Hansma, who lost her beloved cat in the fire. Another man, Shay, lost his pitbull, Justice, who escaped from her leash as he was trying to get out. “We’re jumpy, we’re irritable, I’m scared of sirens. I can’t even walk down Abbott without bawling my eyes out.”

The shop owners are now trying to rebuild their businesses. Horne said he lost tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of inventory in the fire. The Pessiones quickly signed a new lease for new shop space, while others are still taking stock.

Neda Pessione, who had operated her store in the same space for 15 years, said she keeps thinking of the last time she saw Mary Garlow. She says she wants answers about how the fire started and whether it could have been prevented.

“I knew that woman, I knew Mary, I saw her that morning — her routine was going to Nesters,” Pessione said, referring to a local grocery store. “With her nice light blue sweater, her hair tied in the back with her nice skirt on.... And I can't get that image of my head.”

* Story updated on July 8 at 10:19 a.m. to include information from Vancouver Fire Rescue Services about the fire watch.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Housing

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