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Rights + Justice

Fire Exit Doors Were Chained Shut, Winters Resident Testifies

Fire captain also says he neglected to order fire extinguishers be replaced days before the deadly blaze.

Jen St. Denis 24 Jan 2024The Tyee

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

Exit doors at the Winters Hotel were chained shut in the months leading up to a fire that killed two residents, a tenant testified Tuesday during an inquest into the deaths.

Franco Maselli’s testimony echoed a statement made by Misty Fredericks, the niece of Mary Ann Garlow and cousin of Garlow’s son John.

Mary Ann Garlow died in the fire, and John was injured when he jumped from an upper storey to escape on April 11, 2022.

During her testimony Monday, Fredericks said John got “visibly upset” during a recent meeting as he told her “there were chains on the door, the sprinklers didn't work and there was no way out.”

Maselli lived on the second floor of the building and said he noticed the chains on the third- and fourth-floor fire exit doors in previous months when he went upstairs to use the washroom. He said he did not go up to the third or fourth floor in April 2022.

Maselli said he complained to the city about problems with the building and was threatened with eviction by the building manager, Gina Vanemberg.

“I voiced my concerns with the City of Vancouver because I thought, I’m on the right side of the law,” Maselli testified. “I thought, I’m gonna do the right thing.”

A fire captain who attended a smaller blaze three days before the deadly fire at the Winters Hotel also told the inquest he made a mistake when he did not order staff at the building to replace spent fire extinguishers.

Kris Zoppa also said that when firefighters arrived at the first fire at 102 Water St. on Friday, April 8, 2022, no building alarm was sounding.

“At this building, the alarm was not operational,” Zoppa said. He said it was just one of several factors that made him feel uneasy about the safety of residents.

“I didn’t like this building,” he told the inquest.

Events around the April 8 fire are important to the inquest, because after firefighters attended that relatively small fire, the sprinkler system was turned off.

Zoppa issued a fire order to building staff, which said the sprinkler system and building alarm had to be serviced and reactivated by a fire service company. But those systems had still not been reset on April 11, when a fire started and quickly spread throughout the building.

Zoppa also ordered the building management to run a fire watch in the building while the sprinkler and alarms were not operational, requiring regular patrols.

Maselli testified he was never told the building was on fire watch, did not see any notices posted and did not see anyone doing the regular patrols required by fire watch guidelines.

Two residents, Mary Ann Garlow and Dennis Guay, were killed in the April 11, 2022, fire. A coroner’s inquest started Monday to examine the circumstances that led to their deaths.

Coroner’s inquests don’t find fault but seek to determine how a person died. A jury of five hears evidence and then recommends changes that could help prevent similar deaths.

The Winters Hotel was a single-room occupancy hotel that was run as supportive housing by Atira Property Management, with funding from BC Housing. The property is owned by Peter Plett.

Zoppa testified that when he attended the building on April 8, the fire in Suite 222 was mostly out. He said he saw empty fire extinguishers on the floor and heard from two residents that they had used extinguishers to put out the fire.

But when Zoppa filled out the notice of fire safety violation form, he said, he did not check a box that stated that extinguishers were to be replaced. Zoppa said that was an oversight on his part.

A pink form shows the fire department orders after the first Winters Hotel fire. A box requiring fire extinguishers to be refilled was not checked.
Fire report checklist obtained through a freedom of information request.

Zoppa said he did not feel comfortable giving the fire order form to the front desk clerk on duty that day, Daniel Goncalves.

“Daniel seemed not dependable,” Zoppa told the inquest. “So I waited and waited because I did not feel OK leaving the order in his care.”

Zoppa said that the building manager, Gina Vanemberg, finally arrived at the Winters and he gave the notice of fire safety violation to her and spoke to her about what needed to be done.

Zoppa said that when he completed his report on the April 8 fire, he included a complaint about the building in the Vancouver Fire Rescue Services database. “That’s supposed to create a higher level of response around prevention,” he said.

He said if he had been working the next day — a Saturday — he would have followed up with the building management to ensure the sprinklers and alarms had been reset. But, he said, he was not working on April 9, 10 or 11.

Zoppa said the fire order is intended to communicate that the issues are serious and failing to attend to them immediately could result in legal action from the city. But under questioning from lawyers at the inquest, he said he could not recall whether he had left detailed instructions with Vanemberg about how to run a fire watch properly, and he had not given her a printed copy of the fire watch guidelines.

Zoppa said leaving an alarm and sprinkler system off for four days is not acceptable.

“Immediate compliance to me is not four days,” he said. “It should be rectified immediately.”

On the first day of the inquest, family members of Garlow and Guay told the inquest the two residents were vulnerable in different ways.

Two photos show people smiling at the camera. An Indigenous woman with shoulder-length dark hair is wearing a white shirt and dark jacket. A white man is wearing a blue plaid shirt and greyish jacket and standing outdoors.
Mary Ann Garlow, left, and Dennis Guay, right, died in a fire at the Winters Hotel on April 11, 2022. Photos submitted.

Misty Fredericks, Garlow’s niece, said her 68-year-old aunt had lived in the Downtown Eastside for many years. Garlow was a member of the Oneida Nation, part of the Six Nations of the Grand River, and had been compelled to attend residential school as a child. Fredericks said she had heard from other family members that Garlow may have left her home in Ontario and travelled to Vancouver after the birth of her first child in an attempt to leave behind pain and trauma.

Garlow lived at the Balmoral Hotel for 40 years, and was devoted to caring for her son John. When the city closed the Balmoral in 2017 because it was in such bad shape, she and John moved to the Winters. Garlow was known as someone who would help others, Fredericks said.

"If you went to her hungry, she would make you a sandwich, or if you were shortchanged for a drink or the bus, she would help your needs be met," her niece Misty told the inquest.

While John managed to jump from an upper-storey window to escape the fire, Mary was not able to follow. John shattered his legs and continues to live with the effects of those injuries, Fredericks told the inquest. During a recent meeting, John also told Fredericks he was very lonely.

The Guay family’s lawyer, Rebecca Coad, read a statement on behalf of the family. She said Guay was raised in a close-knit family in northern B.C., and as a child, he loved sports, being outdoors and playing games like chess and backgammon.

But his biggest passion was music. Despite being born hard of hearing, he learned piano, then taught himself guitar.

Guay spent 20 years working in "local government and regional district and township positions. He excelled at GIS geographical information system that creates, manages and analyzes maps." Then, while in Vancouver to get more education, he had a mental health crisis.

"The grieving process for Dennis's family has been extremely hard and his death has left a massive void,” Coad told the inquest. “A piece of the puzzle is missing and cannot be fixed. Life is taken day by day.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Housing

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