A Vancouver fire department investigation into a devastating single-room occupancy hotel fire that killed two people on April 11 has found extinguishers in the building didn’t work.
Family members welcomed the report, but said it should bring action to improve SRO safety.
“I think it’s important for the family of the people who perished in the fire to get as many answers as possible,” said Misty Fredericks, the niece of 68-year-old Mary Ann Garlow, one of the tenants who died in the fire.
“We are really hoping for change as a result of this tragedy.”
The investigation report, which The Tyee obtained through a freedom of information request, establishes that the fire was accidental, caused by a tenant who repeatedly burned candles on the floor of their room and in their bed.
The report also confirms that some residents and building staff couldn’t find working fire extinguishers during the fire because they had not been replaced after they were used to fight a previous fire three days earlier.
And it includes heartbreaking details about Garlow’s last moments, when her son escaped the fire by jumping from a fourth-storey window, but she could not follow.
The building was on a fire watch at the time of the April 11 fire because sprinklers and the building alarm weren’t functioning after the fire three days earlier, on a Friday. The sprinklers had to be serviced before being turned back on.
The Tyee previously spoke to 13 residents and four business owners who said they weren’t informed about the fire watch and didn’t see regular patrols being done between April 8 and 11.
But Vancouver Fire Rescue Services says video footage and other evidence shows the fire watch was being done by building staff.
Kirsten Conforti, the sister of another tenant who died in the fire, said she still has questions about why the empty fire extinguishers weren’t replaced right away and why the sprinklers and building alarm weren’t reset in the three days between fires.
“How is that allowed?” she said.
Conforti’s brother, 53-year-old Dennis Guay, was deaf, leaving him especially vulnerable. She does not believe Guay was equipped with adaptive technology, such as flashing lights or a vibrating alarm, to alert him in case of a fire.
“I don't want this to happen to anybody else,” Conforti said. “We can't bring them back — what's happened has happened — but I think there needs to be better regulations.”
The 107-year-old Winters Hotel, which was so badly damaged it had to be demolished, was owned by Peter Plett and operated by Atira Property Management Inc. as supportive housing for low-income people. Single-room occupancy hotels, where residents live in small rooms that do not have their own bathrooms or kitchens, provide housing for some of Vancouver’s poorest and most marginalized people. APMI received $1.5 million in funding from BC Housing to operate the building.
Seven small businesses also rented retail space on the ground floor.
Neither Plett nor Atira Property Management responded to questions for this story.
Vancouver Fire Rescue Services’ fire investigation report says the fire was started when a tenant left candles burning in their bed. (The Tyee is using a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to the tenant for privacy reasons.)
According to the report, a building worker told fire investigators that just one week before the fire he had found 20 to 40 candles on a plate burning on the floor of the tenant’s room. The same staffer told investigators that when he looked inside the door of the tenant’s room during the April 11 fire, he noticed a melted pool of wax on the floor.
When fire investigators visited the tenant in new housing several weeks after the fire, they noticed candles on the tenant’s bed. The tenant told investigators that they use candles when they smoke cigarettes and other drugs, and said it was possible they had left a candle unattended in their room at the Winters. They also told investigators they had accidentally set their own hair on fire twice a few weeks before the April 11 fire because of their habit of leaving candles burning in their bed.
Vancouver Fire Rescue Services investigators say they considered the possibility the fire had been deliberately set, but they ruled out that theory after reviewing video evidence from a security camera they recovered from the building.
Investigators also used the video footage to confirm that another resident, Sean Brandon, had resorted to trying to put out the fire with water from a bucket when he was unable to find a working fire extinguisher.
Brandon had previously described to The Tyee how he had searched frantically for a fire extinguisher, but had only found empty ones on the second floor where the fire started.
The report says a deactivated elevator shaft and open mezzanines allowed the fire to spread rapidly throughout the 107-year-old building. Fans that were running to dry water damage that happened when the sprinkler system went off during the April 8 fire also helped to spread the flames.
The fire started near the back of the building in room 206, and video and photos that Vancouver fire services obtained show that is where the fire was most intense. Garlow lived in room 303. Her son, John, was able to escape from a window, but was badly injured when he jumped into a narrow space between the Winters and a neighbouring building. He told fire investigators that the last time he saw his mother she was right behind him. Her body was found on April 22 during the demolition of the building in the hallway a few feet away from her door.
“It did help me gain some understanding of the situation,” Fredericks said of reading the investigation report. “But it also really saddened me because it would appear by that report that my aunt was making sure that her son got out of the building, then subsequently turned away and tried to exit another way and didn’t make it.”
Guay’s body was found the same day that Garlow’s remains were discovered. The fire investigation report explains that Guay’s remains had fallen into room 204 when the fire had consumed the floor of his one story above.
Lance Tanner, another tenant, is likely the last person to have seen Guay alive. As he was running through the building as it burned, trying to warn neighbours to get out, he told The Tyee, he knocked on Guay’s door and “he looked out and I said something and he just told me to shut the door.” Tanner did not know at the time that Guay was deaf.
Records obtained by The Tyee through a freedom of information request show that after the April 8 fire, the fire department ordered a fire watch to be in place and the sprinkler and alarm systems to be serviced.
But firefighters did not order fire extinguishers used to fight the blaze to be serviced or replaced.
Matthew Trudeau, a public information officer with the Vancouver fire department, told The Tyee that it’s standard practice to follow up with an “after fire” inspection three to five days after a fire to make sure the building owner has all the fire and life safety systems back in place.
“If a fire extinguisher had been used during the April 8 fire that was part of the required inventory of fire and life safety systems, fire prevention staff would have followed up on this during the ‘after fire’ inspection,” Trudeau said.
After the April 8 fire, the “after fire” inspection for the Winters Hotel was supposed to have taken place the following week.
Trudeau said Vancouver Fire Rescue Services is now working with stakeholders, including BC Housing, on developing and implementing fire safety training programs for all operators and staff of SRO hotels.
Conforti and Fredericks say they’re disappointed that none of the agencies involved with the Winters Hotel have reached out to them with more information.
“We are really hoping for change as a result of this tragedy,” Fredericks said. “And that future tragedies could be prevented if better safety measures are in place.”
Conforti recalled one of the last text messages she exchanged with her brother.
“He said, ‘I have a roof over my head and a safe place to stay,’” she said. “So even though he had just a room, he still felt safe — and that really bothers me.
“It bothers me that this happened in a place where he felt he was safe.”