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Winters Hotel Tenants Struggle with Trauma After Fatal Fire

Displaced residents were moved into a building that was not up to safety code.

Jen St. Denis 2 Nov 2022TheTyee.ca

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

Former residents of the Winters Hotel who escaped a fatal fire in April say they continue to be affected by trauma and have been shaken by the deaths of five of their neighbours since relocating from the Winters to the Columbia Hotel.

The BC General Employees' Union, which represents staff who were at the Winters Hotel at the time of the fire, says those workers have also needed support to “address the traumatic aftermath of the experience."

“Once in a while, sometimes I’ll look at my wall and I see smoke,” said Colin Fox, a former Winters Hotel resident who escaped the fire in April and now lives at the Columbia Hotel at 303 Water St., which is also known as Tawow.

“And it takes me a minute to register that it’s not smoke. It makes me panic.”

The Columbia, which had recently been purchased by Atira Women’s Resource Society and BC Housing, was empty when the Winters burned down and was able to be used as emergency replacement housing.

But renovations weren’t complete and the building was not yet up to fire code. Since tenants moved in in April, the building has been on a fire watch because of those deficiencies. Work to install a new fire panel, new smoke and heat detectors and fire alarm strobe lights is expected to be completed in the next few weeks, according to BC Housing.

The Winters, at 102 Water St., was privately owned and also operated by Atira Property Management Inc., a subsidiary of Atira Women’s Resource Society.

In a statement, APMI said the past few months have been extremely challenging for both tenants and staff.

The company confirmed that five Columbia tenants have died over the last five months. Three of the people who died — one by suicide, one by suspected overdose and one of an unknown cause — were not previously tenants at the Winters Hotel.

Two of the Columbia tenants who recently died had lived at the Winters.

One 29-year-old man died after being stabbed on East Hastings Street, and one older man died of what APMI staff believe to be a chronic health condition, although the coroner has not released a cause of death.

Two tenants died in the Winters fire: Mary Ann Garlow and Dennis Guay. Kyle Johnson, a 33-year old tenant of the Gastown Hotel — a building that was right next door to the Winters and also had to be evacuated — died after suffering a heart attack just two weeks after the fire. It’s still not known whether smoke inhalation played a role in his death.

A six-storey building made of light-brown bricks with regularly spaced windows stands on a street corner, with trees in leaf in front.
Winters Hotel tenants were moved to the Columbia Hotel after the fire. The building is relatively well maintained, but has required renovations to bring it up to fire code. Photo by Jen St. Denis.

The Winters Hotel burned down on April 11. The catastrophic blaze quickly spread through the 107-year-old building, leaving tenants scrambling to get themselves and pets out through hallways filled with smoke and flames. While it was initially reported that all tenants were accounted for, the bodies of Garlow and Guay were found as the building was being demolished 11 days later.

A fire investigation report completed by Vancouver Fire Rescue Services found that some fire extinguishers were empty because they had been used to fight a previous fire at the hotel three days earlier and had not been replaced.

The building’s sprinklers and fire alarms were not working at the time of the April 11 fire, because they had yet to be reset by a fire suppression systems contractor following the previous fire.

While some tenants and business owners said they did not see Winters Hotel staff patrolling the building and were not informed the building was on a fire watch, the Vancouver fire department has told The Tyee that investigators determined that building staff did conduct the fire watch.

Jennifer Hansma, who lost her cat in the Winters fire and was relocated to the Columbia, said the fire has left her fearful and she desperately wants to move to a building managed by someone other than Atira Property Management Inc.

“I don't want to live under Atira,” said Hansma. “I don't want nothing to do with them ever again, ever again.”

The supportive housing provider, a subsidiary of Atira Women’s Resource Society, operates 19 single-room occupancy hotels in Vancouver. Some are privately owned while others are owned by the province, but most — including the Winters Hotel — are operated with funding from BC Housing.

Hansma questioned why APMI hasn’t been held accountable for not replacing fire extinguishers at the Winters. She said she still struggles with the trauma of losing her cat and the terror of escaping the fire.

"Especially with fire alarms going off, I have anxiety attacks,” she said.

“It happened in a store and I fell on my knees and I just started bawling.”

Lezlie Prutton, another Columbia Hotel tenant, said a new supervised drug consumption site that is run by peers at the Columbia is working well. It was set up in September and is badly needed because many tenants are using drugs more heavily to deal with the trauma of escaping the fire, Prutton said.

She also praised the Columbia’s building manager for going above and beyond to help tenants get what they need.

APMI said a counsellor was at the Columbia Hotel for three days after the fire and has been at the building for another six days.

“Posters hung around the building provide his contact information and an invitation for tenants to contact him directly for support, at a time convenient for them,” the company said in a statement.

“He also offers referrals to more appropriate cultural services, as requested, and has been available to staff.”

A photo taken through a chai link fence shows the cleaned-up basement of the Winters Hotel, destroyed by fire and demolished in April. Solid green fencing blocks the back of the site.
The Winters Hotel site on Oct. 31, 2022. After the April 11 fire, the city ordered the building to be demolished. Photo by Jen St. Denis.

APMI employees are represented by the BC General Employees' Union. In a statement, the union said the Winters Hotel was “a terrible and, we believe, preventable tragedy for the community, residents of the hotel, the victims and their loved ones as well as our members.”

After the fire at the Winters Hotel, BCGEU representatives and Atira conducted a joint occupational health and safety investigation that led to the union making several recommendations.

Those recommendations included making sure spent extinguishers are replaced; doing regular fire drills; performing monthly workplace inspections to check that alarms, sprinklers and extinguishers are working; and making sure staff is aware of fire watch procedures and that proper signage is posted when a building is on fire watch.

“Since April we have seen some positive steps, but our staff and activists continue to work actively to ensure all recommendations required to protect workers and residents are implemented as quickly as possible,” the union said.

“Atira has made some improvements, but our members feel that their employer’s response lacks the urgency one might expect when it comes to addressing fire safety. More needs to be done at a far faster pace.”

The BCGEU said it also welcomes a coroner’s inquest that will examine the deaths of Garlow and Guay. A date has not been set.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Housing

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