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Inquest into Winters Hotel Blaze Reveals More Jarring Safety Oversights

Jury hears of missing safety plan and 50-year-old alarm after a fire killed two residents.

Jen St. Denis 1 Feb 2024The Tyee

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

The Winters Hotel’s sprinkler system and building alarm were 50 years old and did not meet current fire code requirements, a coroner’s inquest heard Wednesday.

The inquest also heard that the non-profit operator of the supportive-housing building, Atira Property Management, was unable to produce a fire safety plan for the building, despite being ordered to do so by the presiding coroner.

The inquest examining the circumstances that led to a major fire that destroyed the single-room occupancy hotel in Vancouver on April 11, 2022, began on Jan. 22 and is scheduled to run to Feb. 9. Residents Mary Ann Garlow and Dennis Guay lost their lives in the fire.

At the time of the fire, the sprinklers were not working and several fire extinguishers were empty because of a previous fire on April 8, 2022.

Ken Thompson, the CEO of the company that owns Royal City Fire Supplies Ltd., told the inquest that provincial legislation allows older fire suppression systems to continue operating but the 50-year-old fire suppression system in place at the Winters does not meet today’s standards.

He also said it would be very costly to upgrade to a modern system, and the expense could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Thompson was also questioned on Atira’s response to a request from John Knox, the coroner presiding over the inquest, to provide a copy of the building’s fire safety plan to the inquest.

Under B.C.'s Coroners Act, the presiding coroner has the power to compel witnesses to testify or produce “information or a thing in the person’s possession or control.”

In a letter that was read during the Tuesday session of the inquest, Atira told the coroner that the Winters Hotel fire safety plan had been destroyed in the fire but said Royal City had a copy. B.C.’s fire code requires all buildings in the province to have a fire safety plan.

But Thompson said that despite a thorough search of both electronic and archival records, his company had not been able to find any sign of the plan or any record that Royal City had been contracted to provide the plan.

Fire safety plans are also required to be filed with the municipality where a building is located, and Thompson said a request to the City of Vancouver also did not yield any copies of the plan.

Atira began managing the privately owned building as supportive housing in 2017, with funding from BC Housing. In 2017, the occupancy of the building went from approximately 20 tenants to around 70, as many residents of the Balmoral Hotel were rehoused at the Winters after the Balmoral was condemned by the city.

The Winters property is owned by Peter Plett, a landowner who owns several other buildings in the Gastown neighbourhood.

Thompson said Royal City was also not able to find any historic fire safety plan completed for the period before 2017, when Plett managed the Winters.

Evidence presented at the inquest has shown that the building’s alarm was functional on April 11, despite previous assumptions by the Vancouver fire department that the alarm was not working because it didn’t go off during an earlier fire on April 8. During that fire, the sprinklers deployed but the alarm stayed silent.

Thompson explained that the alarm for the Winters had just two heat sensors located on the fourth floor, but the alarm could have also been activated by using a pull station lever. On both April 8 and 11, the deadly fire started in a room on the third floor.

Video evidence submitted to the inquest shows the building alarm sounding, but not until the third floor was engulfed in flames.

Thompson told the inquest the building was equipped with an “eight-bell” alarm system, which was a relatively low number for the size of the building. He said the current fire code would require more alarm bells throughout the building.

When it comes to the missing fire safety plan, several Atira staffers have said the plan for the Winters was in a binder referred to as “the red book,” which was supposed to hold all important information about the building and be in the Winters Hotel office.

According to the 2018 BC Fire Code, the fire safety plan describes the emergency procedures that should be used in case of fire, training of staff on fire safety, documentation of fire emergency systems, fire drills, and inspection and maintenance of fire safety systems.

The building manager of the Winters, Gina Vanemberg, previously testified that she had never held a fire drill at the building from the time she started working at the hotel in 2020 to the time of the fire on April 11, 2022.

She also said that although the fire department had ordered the sprinklers and alarms to be immediately serviced after the earlier fire on Friday, April 8, she did not call Royal City Fire Supplies until Monday, April 11. Vanemberg said she didn’t bother calling until April 11 because she did not think Royal City would respond on a Friday evening, and because there was an informal policy at Atira to avoid bringing in contractors after hours.

Thompson said Royal City has 24-hour service, seven days a week, and would have sent technicians to immediately reset the sprinkler system and check the building alarm if Vanemberg had called on a Friday night. That service would have incurred overtime fees, which Atira would have had to pay, Thompson testified.

Grant Barton, managing director of supportive housing for Atira, told the inquest that while there was a policy to ask for permission before calling in contractors after hours for routine repairs, building managers at the company have always been allowed to call in contractors for fire- and life-safety issues.

Vanemberg and front desk clerk John Claxton previously testified that although they were aware Guay was deaf, there was no plan in place to alert him in case of fire. Vanemberg said that although she asked BC Housing about installing an adaptive alarm for Guay, such as flashing lights or a vibrating bed, she never heard back.

Earlier in the inquest, several tenants testified that they had seen chains on fire escape doors in the months before the fire. Photo and video evidence shows those chains were not on fire doors on April 11, and that those doors were able to be opened during the fire.

But Chauncey Carr, an Atira employee who was responsible for overseeing several buildings, including the Winters, testified he had seen chains on fire escape doors several months before the fire. The building had ongoing problems with people breaking into the hotel through the fire doors.

“I did see the doors chained a few months before the Winters fire,” said Carr, who was the manager Vanemberg reported to. “I asked [Vanemberg] to remove them immediately, and visually checked that myself.”

Jennifer Hansma, a resident of the Winters who fled the fire on April 11, told the inquest she didn’t bother trying to leave the smoke-filled building through the fire escape because she thought the door would be locked. “I knew it wouldn’t work,” she said.  [Tyee]

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