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The Winters Hotel Fire Inquest Starts Today. Families Are Hoping for Answers

Mary Ann Garlow and Dennis Guay died when their supportive-housing building burned in a terrifying fire in 2022.

Jen St. Denis 22 Jan 2024The Tyee

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

Family members of Mary Ann Garlow and Dennis Guay are hoping a coroner’s inquest starting today will answer the many questions that linger around the deaths of the two supportive-housing tenants in a fire on April 11, 2022.

“We basically want all the facts related to the fire and what policies and plans were in place,” Kirsten Conforti, Guay’s sister, told The Tyee. “We also want to know what the protocol is for replacing extinguishers [and] resetting sprinklers.”

The coroner’s inquest is set to run for three weeks, from Jan. 22 to Feb. 9.

When the fire broke out at the Winters Hotel in Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood, the 107-year-old single-room occupancy hotel lacked many of the normal protections from fire.

Empty fire extinguishers, a frantic search

The sprinkler and building alarm had been turned off after a previous fire on April 8 and had yet to be reset by a fire services company when the second fire started three days later.

The fire investigation report found that many of the fire extinguishers in the building had been left empty and not replaced, leading to a terrifying situation for tenants who searched frantically for working extinguishers.

While the fire department said its investigation determined that a required fire watch was being conducted that weekend, many tenants and business owners said they were not informed of the fire watch and did not see the notices posted or frequent patrols required by a fire watch.

The union that represents Atira Property Management workers in the building has also questioned whether the fire watch was being done.

Vancouver Fire Rescue Services investigators found that the fire had been started accidentally by a tenant who frequently left candles burning in their bed.

Shortly after The Tyee reported that fire extinguishers had been left empty, B.C.’s solicitor general announced he had directed that a coroner’s inquest be held. Coroner’s inquests don’t find fault but seek to determine how a person died and make recommendations.

The Winters Hotel was owned by a private landowner, Peter Plett, and was operated as supportive housing by Atira Property Management, with funding from BC Housing. Many of the tenants had previously lived at the Balmoral Hotel, a single-room occupancy hotel described as one of the worst in the city that had been closed in 2017.

‘How were people accounted for?’

Mary Ann Garlow, a 68-year-old residential school survivor from the Oneida Nation, had lived in the Balmoral for 40 years before moving to the Winters. At the Balmoral and at the Winters, she was devoted to caring for her son, John, who badly injured his legs when he jumped from a fourth-floor window to escape the flames. At a press conference a year after the fire, John was still using a wheelchair because of those injuries.

“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.”

Dennis Guay, 53, grew up in Dawson Creek and had lost most of his hearing when he had a fever as a baby. His neighbour Wendy Gaspard recalls playing music with him and that his talent was “just awesome.”

His sister Kirsten Conforti previously told The Tyee that her brother was passionate about music and had learned to play the piano and then the guitar.

“This is amazing for someone with such profound hearing loss, and it truly was his passion,” Conforti said.

Conforti and Fredericks also have questions about how tenants were accounted for after the fire. The day after the fire, BC Housing said all tenants were accounted for, but 11 days after the fire, two bodies were found in the wreckage of the building.

Winters tenants Candice Mclaurin and Lance Tanner were the first to notify media that two tenants were missing.

There were conflicting accounts from Atira and the Vancouver Police Department when it came to the timeline of Garlow being reported missing.

Even after tenants raised the alarm about Guay still being unaccounted for nearly a month after the fire, Atira staff said they did not believe he had died in the fire. He had been reported missing to police on April 26, 15 days after the fire, by Union Gospel Mission.

Twenty months after the fire, family members still have many questions about what went wrong in the building that was being run as supportive housing for vulnerable low-income people.

“We want to know all the details of the fire: Why no sprinkler system or working extinguishers? Was there an exit plan in place for residents?” Conforti said. “If so, did they know what it was? How were people accounted for, seeing they said Dennis was accounted for after the fire?”

A class-action lawsuit started by the tenants a year after the fire continues to proceed through the courts.  [Tyee]

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