A front desk worker on duty at the time of a deadly fire at the Winters Hotel told a coroner’s inquest there were no procedures in place to notify a deaf tenant in case of fire.
John Claxton said he and other staff were doing regular fire watch patrols on April 11, 2022, and he was aware that the building’s alarm and sprinklers were not working after a fire three days earlier.
When asked how he planned to notify residents of the four-storey building if a fire started, Claxton said he thought his voice would be enough to let people know to get out of the building.
“At the Winters you could stand right at the main entrance outside the office and holler loud enough for everyone to hear,” Claxton said.
While Claxton said he knew that one tenant, Dennis Guay, was deaf, he wasn’t aware of any plan for alerting him.
“I’d never come across that situation before,” Claxton said.
Guay, 53, died in the fire, along with another resident, 68-year-old Mary Ann Garlow. The building was being operated as supportive housing for low-income people by Atira Property Management, with funding from BC Housing. The property is owned by Peter Plett.
At the time of the fire, the building alarm was not working. The sprinkler system had been shut off and many fire extinguishers were empty after a smaller fire on April 8, 2022.
Three tenants have testified that fire exit doors were chained shut, and Neda Pessione, a business owner who leased space on the ground floor, also testified she saw fire escape doors chained from the inside and seemingly barred from the outside.
But Claxton said that while there were chains on fire escape doors, they did not actually prevent the doors from being pushed open.
Claxton said he was doing the fire watch patrol along with another staffer, Tony Costa, on the morning of the deadly fire. He arrived at work at 7:30 a.m.; the fire started just before 11 a.m.
While Claxton said he had been given general instructions on how to do a fire watch, he was not familiar with the Vancouver fire department’s official fire watch guidelines. They stipulate that fire watch patrollers should wear identifiable clothing like safety vests and use a device like an air horn to alert residents.
Claxton said he and Costa didn’t wear any special clothing and did not have an air horn. He also testified that there were no set procedures to notify tenants that the building was on fire watch, such as sending an email or knocking on everyone’s door.
While tenants Diana Dawkins, Franco Maselli and Jennifer Hansma testified they did not see any notices posted about the building being on fire watch, Claxton said he did see several notices posted in the building when he came to work that day.
Claxton said he also noticed right away that several fire extinguishers on the third floor were empty, but Costa told him they were set to be replaced by a fire service company. That company was supposed to come that day, Claxton told the third day of the inquest, and reset the sprinkler system and fire alarm as well.
On the morning of April 11, Claxton said, tenants alerted him that there was a fire on the third floor and he went out of his office. Someone passed him a fire extinguisher and he went up to try to fight the fire, but the two extinguishers he and another tenant used weren’t enough.
He then focused on getting people out of the building. Watching security camera video of the interior of the building during the fire, Claxton said, “I am being loud — I had to be loud. There were people screaming, and with the fire crackling it was loud in there.”
Pessione told the inquest that problems increased at the Winters Hotel after Atira took over management of the building in 2017 and many tenants from the Balmoral Hotel moved in. The Balmoral was suddenly closed by the city because it was deemed no longer safe to occupy.
Pessione said she frequently went inside the residential portion of the building to help or visit with tenants, and often saw clutter in the hallways and the chains across the fire escapes, which concerned her.
Pessione said that because there was only one outlet in the rooms, tenants frequently used extension cords to run appliances like space heaters and hot plates. She said she even noticed residents plugging extension cords into Christmas tree lights that adorned trees outside the building.
“We were expressing all these concerns [to BC Housing] and saying they need to be addressed immediately,” Pessione told the inquest, referring to meetings that were happening in 2017. “The windows are old, they can’t be opened, doors need to be replaced. The plumbing — we were constantly having floods.
“It wasn’t a resident issue, it was a building issue — it was old, and not maintained well.”
Pessione said she and her husband became frustrated with the responses they were getting from BC Housing, so they focused their efforts on forming relationships with the Winters tenants.
Jennifer Hansma testified that when she woke up on April 11 her room was full of smoke and she could not see. She was able to make her way out of the building by reaching out and grabbing hold of another person, but she lost her cat in the fire.
Hansma said she didn’t consider using the fire escapes to get out of the building, which had just one entrance.
“I knew it wouldn’t work,” she said.
Hansma said she continues to feel unsafe since the fire and has learned how to use a fire extinguisher. She said she and many of her neighbours now buy their own fire extinguishers, despite the $65 cost.
Hansma said she knew both Guay and Garlow.
“[Garlow] was like a mom. She was awesome. I miss her every day,” Hansma told the inquest. “I knew Dennis — I’d wave because I knew he was deaf.”
When asked what recommendations she’d suggest to prevent a similar tragedy from happening, Hansma said deaf residents need to be equipped with a flashing light or buzzing alarm to alert them in case of an emergency.
“Just something to let these people know that something’s wrong,” Hansma said through tears.
“And then they wouldn’t die.”