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A Year After the Deadly Winters Hotel Fire, Union Questions Safety Issues

A worker who ran to fight the fire says he was not aware that the alarm was off and fire extinguishers were empty.

Jen St. Denis 11 Apr 2023TheTyee.ca

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

The president of the union that represents workers at Atira Property Management Inc. says she’s concerned safety measures weren’t in place before a deadly fire at the Winters Hotel one year ago today.

“Our union was very concerned to learn that a worker was not told that the alarm was off, and extinguishers were not replaced when they started their shift,” Stephanie Smith, president of the BC General Employees' Union, told The Tyee.

“We also remain concerned that fire watch policy as specified by the Vancouver Fire Department was not in place,” Smith told The Tyee in a statement, despite fire department statements that the fire watch was being done.

John Claxton, a front desk worker who responded to the fire on April 11, 2022, told union representatives that he was not aware the alarm had not been reset after a fire on April 8, or that fire extinguishers were empty.

His account was published in the fall issue of the BC General Employees' Union’s newsletter.

“One day in early April, the front desk was alerted to a fire, so Claxton sprinted up the stairs,” the newsletter recounts. “After discovering the fire, he went in on his knees under the smoke to blast a fire extinguisher at the base of the flames. One extinguisher wasn’t enough, so he ran to another extinguisher — empty. He found another extinguisher — empty. Soon he realized all the extinguishers and fire alarms hadn’t been restored after a fire the week before.”

Claxton declined an interview request from The Tyee to talk about his experience during the fire.

The Winters Hotel fire killed two vulnerable residents — Mary Ann Garlow, 68, and Dennis Guay, 53 — and displaced 144 low-income tenants in the Winters and the adjacent Gastown Hotel.

The single-room occupancy hotel was privately owned by Peter Plett, and was operated as supportive housing by APMI with funding from BC Housing. APMI, a for-profit subsidiary of Atira Women’s Resource Society, operates 18 SROs as supportive housing. Atira Women’s Resource Society is the largest supportive housing provider funded by BC Housing.

Atira did not reply to a request for comment for this story.

But Janice Abbott told the Vancouver Sun that her organization has increased training on fire safety at the building APMI operates and has developed a 16-page strategic plan, written by an outside contractor, to mitigate fires.

The fire damaged the Winters so badly that it had to be demolished.

The Tyee has spent months covering the fatal fire and has reported that the fire alarm and sprinkler system had not been reset following a previous fire at the building on April 8.

Fire extinguishers were not replaced, leading to tenants and workers scrambling to find working extinguishers to put out the April 11 fire. One resident told The Tyee that he resorted to using a mop bucket when he realized all the extinguishers were empty. His account was confirmed by the fire department’s investigation report.

Claxton’s account is similar to what tenants and one business owner described to The Tyee — a frantic and futile search for working fire extinguishers as thick black smoke and flames filled the building, with many residents caught unaware because the alarm did not sound.

Like several tenants The Tyee has interviewed, Claxton said he yelled “Fire!” and helped get residents out after realizing the fire extinguishers were empty.

After responding to the fire on April 8 that was quickly extinguished, Vancouver Fire Rescue Services had ordered a 24-hour-fire watch be conducted in the building until the alarm and sprinklers could be reset. According to the Vancouver fire department, all residents need to be notified when a building is on fire watch and regular patrols must be done throughout the building every 30 minutes during the day, and every 15 minutes overnight. The patrols are also supposed to be recorded in a log book.

Thirteen tenants and four business owners told The Tyee they had not been informed about the fire watch and had not seen staff doing the regular patrols needed for a fire watch. They said they were not aware the fire alarms and sprinklers were not working following the April 8 fire.

But Vancouver Fire Rescue Services later told The Tyee that video footage and other evidence showed the fire watch was being done by building staff. The Tyee asked the VFRS to provide The Tyee with that video footage or explain the steps investigators took to determine the fire watch was being done, but the service was not able to respond to those inquiries by press time.

Claxton should have been told before he started his shift that the sprinklers and alarm weren’t working and that the building was on a fire watch, according to his union and Vancouver Fire Rescue Service’s fire watch requirements. Instead, according to what he told union representatives, he was caught by surprise by both the non-working alarm and the empty fire extinguishers.

The fire department’s investigation found that the fire was accidentally started when a tenant left candles burning on their bed. The investigation report also found that the building’s fire escapes were locked at the time of the April 11 fire.

The union’s concerns about the fire watch add to a number of questions about why the alarm and sprinkler weren’t reset for days, why fire extinguishers were left empty after the April 8 fire and why it took APMI so long to realize that two tenants were missing.

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.

One was identified by neighbours and family as Garlow, a residential school survivor who had lived in the Downtown Eastside for over 40 years. According to the fire investigation report, Garlow’s son was able to jump out of a fourth-floor window to escape the flames, but Garlow was found in the hallway outside her room.

Guay, who was deaf and may not have understood his neighbours when they told him to get out of the building, was not reported missing until April 26. He was reported missing by Union Gospel Mission, another shelter where Guay had previously sought help. APMI staff initially said the second body was not Guay’s, even though his neighbours, family and staff at Union Gospel Mission believed he had died in the fire.

In January, The Tyee interviewed a former APMI building manager who worked at a building near the Winters. The employee, who The Tyee agreed to keep anonymous, said that normal procedure at APMI was to call contractors immediately to reset sprinklers and alarms. The building manager said in her experience, alarms and sprinklers have been reset in a matter of hours. She said it was very unusual to leave sprinklers and alarms off for three days.

Abbott told the Vancouver Sun it was APMI's policy to immediately call fire services contractors to reset fire suppression systems.

"It’s not clear, based on the records available to us, whether this happened," she told the Sun. "We do know a call was made Monday morning, several hours before the April 11 fire started.”

Many of the surviving tenants of the Winters Hotel have been left with lingering trauma, and say they have never been properly compensated for the loss of their belongings. Many of the tenants were moved into another SRO that was not up to fire code, which some residents said compounded their fears of fire.

There has been a sharp increase in fires in SROs, and Smith said the BCGEU has been working to make sure Atira Property Management Inc. formalizes fire training for all workers.

“While we don’t feel this has been happening quickly enough, we do see improvements and will remain vigilant on this issue,” she told The Tyee.

A coroner’s inquest into Garlow and Guay’s deaths was announced a week after The Tyee reported that fire extinguishers had been empty at the time of the fire. The date for the inquest has not yet been set.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Housing

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