Crews began dismantling a heritage building in Montreal that was destroyed in a raging fire last week, as families and friends of the victims awaited word on when remains of their loved ones would be recovered from the rubble.
In a news conference Sunday evening, police confirmed one person has died and six people remain missing as officers continue the search for victims. A body was recovered at 6:45 p.m., and has been taken to a forensic lab to be identified, police said.
”We are sensitive to what the families of the missing [people] are going through,” said Montreal fire operations chief Martin Guilbault.”Our goal is, for the investigation, to share light on this tragedy and provide answers for the families.”
Mr. Guilbault said fire services began preparations early Sunday to dismantle the second and third floors of the building in order to gain access to the fire scene.
Dismantling of the charred structure was expected to continue for several days, and police said investigators are hoping to get inside the building within the next two days.
Police have not released the names of those missing, but Louis-Philippe Lacroix said his 18-year-old daughter, Charlie, was one of the victims trapped inside the Old Montreal building, which housed an architectural firm and several residences.
Mr. Lacroix said his daughter was in an Airbnb with friends on Thursday morning when the fire broke out. She and at least one friend made two calls to 911, he said, describing how they were trapped in a windowless apartment and could not escape.
“Learning this news and having to announce it to my son and my loved ones is certainly the worst thing to experience as a parent,” Mr. Lacroix posted on social media. On Saturday, he came from Terrebonne, a suburb north of the city, with other family members to grieve for his daughter outside the building where she spent her last night.
In a televised interview with Radio-Canada, Marik Boudreau said her friend Camille Maheux, who lived in the building, was among those missing. “As time passed, we realized that she was nowhere to be found. We’re still looking for her,” she said.
Alina Kuzmina and her husband were sleeping in their Airbnb rental in the building’s basement when they were awoken by what she described as a “loud explosion” and a bright orange light coming from behind their door. Ms. Kuzmina said she and her husband were lucky they heard the sound, as the fire alarms in her unit did not work.
“We literally woke up to the sound of fire,” she said.
Within the span of three minutes, the couple from Cornwall, Ont., quickly threw on their jackets, smashed the apartment’s window and crawled outside, where Ms. Kuzmina said she saw a man on the second floor jump out of his window to escape the fire.
Ms. Kuzmina said when she later called her Airbnb host, she was surprised to learn that her Airbnb was unlicensed. A city bylaw bans short-term rentals in Old Montreal, but a quick search on the app shows there are “over 1,000 homes” available for short-term rental in the area.
Airbnb spokesperson Matt McNama did not answer The Globe and Mail’s questions about how the company dealt with local bylaws and the enforced building safety measures. He said in a statement on Sunday that Airbnb was providing support to those affected and co-operating with law enforcement during the investigation.
Ms. Kuzmina said the Airbnb host told her they would stop renting out the apartment by the summer. “I guess they were still hoping to make a buck before the summer comes, which unfortunately cost people’s lives.”
Eve-Marie Morin was one of the people gathered outside the badly damaged building on Sunday. She said she had booked an Airbnb short-term rental there in December, 2020.
“In the end, we did not stay. There were no windows, it was a bit of a weird room. It was scary … we were not comfortable staying there,” she said, sharing screenshots of the reservation details. “It’s like it was in the middle of the building, because there were no windows at all.”
Alain Vaillancourt, a City of Montreal councillor responsible for public security, said it was too early to draw conclusions about potential safety issues with the building. If there were any violations, he said, the city would act severely. He called on the province’s revenue agency to provide more resources to fight against illegal Airbnbs and other short-term rentals, adding that the city does not have enough inspectors to enforce the bylaws.
The building is owned by Émile-Haim Benamor, according to the provincial land registry. Calls and e-mails to a man by that name went unanswered on the weekend. But Mr. Benamor’s lawyer, Alexandre Bergevin, told French-language newspaper Le Devoir that his client, who has owned the building since 2009, has never rented apartments on Airbnb. He said “unfortunately” it was his client’s tenants who sometimes sublet their apartments on the short-term rental site.
Mr. Bergevin told the Canadian Press in a text message that the building’s alarm system had been replaced in 2019 and was regularly tested. Regarding the emergency exits, he said the building has a complex layout. “It has always been deemed compliant in the past.”
As workers began removing debris from the building on Sunday, local residents struggled to make sense of what happened.
“We had no idea that some units didn’t even have some windows,” said Christine La Prade, who lives just two blocks from the building. “It’s just horrifying.”
She said she awoke to the smell of smoke and the sound of sirens on Thursday, and came rushing out of her home to see the building burning. Even from a safe distance, Ms. La Prade said she could feel the searing heat coming from it and smoke that made it impossible to breathe.
Yuval Daniel, an Old Port resident who lives one street over, said the fire worried him and pushed him to call his landlord to make sure all of the safety devices in his home and possible escape routes were up to code. “It’s very eerie,” he said. “It’s very close to home.”
Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante called the fire a “heartbreaking tragedy” in a tweet on Saturday.
“Our priority is to support the families of the victims who are still waiting for answers at the present time.”
With a report from Molly Hayes and Canadian Press