At least 7 people missing after major fire in Old Montreal heritage building

At least 7 people missing after major fire in Old Montreal heritage building

At least seven people are considered missing and could still be in the rubble following a major fire that raged through a historic building in Old Montreal on Thursday morning, emergency officials said Saturday.

Speaking at a brief news conference late Saturday night, Montreal fire operations chief Martin Guilbault said crews would begin dismantling parts of the building on Sunday in order for investigators to continue their search and determine a cause for the fire.

Investigators had initially said one person was believed to be missing after the fire. But at an earlier news conference Saturday, Guilbault said information recently confirmed from various sources led them to conclude that more people were trapped inside when the blaze broke out before 6 a.m. Thursday.

One of those people is 18-year-old Charlie Lacroix, according to her grandfather, who spoke to reporters from the scene on Saturday.

"She was a happy little girl — beautiful and happy," Robert Lacas said through tears.

He said all he knows to date about what happened to his granddaughter is what he says a police source told him.

"[Police] received a first call from my little girl who said 'come and get us because there are no windows where we are, we can't get out and the fire is burning,'" Lacas said.

He said three minutes later, police received another call from Lacroix saying the same thing. "And then the phone cut out," he said, breaking into tears.

Rowan Kennedy/CBC
Rowan Kennedy/CBC

Lacas is calling for an investigation into the building's safety. "It's not normal that an individual has an apartment where there's no other access than the door," he said. "It's illegal … you have to have two places that you can escape."

Police have not confirmed Lacas's account and will not be confirming the names of those that are missing out of respect for their families, a Montreal police spokesperson said.

Police are urging anyone looking for a missing person who could have been inside the building to contact them at 514-280-2222 or visit a local police station.

Firefighters unable to enter building

Nine people, three of whom had serious injuries, were transported to the hospital Thursday. As of Saturday, two are still receiving treatment in the burn unit.

Alina Kuzmina and her spouse were sleeping in one of the Airbnb rental units inside the building when they were awoken around 5:30 a.m. by what she describes as the sound of an explosion.

"We started seeing the orange flames and the orange light from underneath the door and the sound of crackling fire, so it was pretty clear that there was a fire right outside the door," she said.

The pair, originally from Cornwall, Ont., quickly gathered what they could and, being in a basement unit, were able to smash a window and crawl through it, escaping with only minor injuries.

Simon-Marc Charron/Radio-Canada
Simon-Marc Charron/Radio-Canada

Once on the street, Kuzmina recalls chaos.

"I saw a guy who had just fallen from the second floor. I believe he just threw himself out of the window [while] trying to escape the fire," she said.

Kuzmina said the most alarming part of the experience is that neither of the two fire alarms in her unit went off, forcing her and her husband to wake up to the flames themselves.

"This is very much nightmare material, so my frustration is with how this building is managed," she said.

Police said Saturday the case had been transferred to the Montreal police arson squad as of Friday night.

Steve Belzil, commander of the arson squad, said he could not provide any information about the identities of the missing people, including whether or not they were residents of the building or people who had rented a space there on Airbnb.

On Sunday morning, a large crane was on the scene as workers began taking apart the two top floors of the building. 

Firefighters have yet to be able to safely enter the three-storey, 15-unit building at the intersection of Place d'Youville and Saint-Nicolas Street in order to investigate.

Authorities therefore are not able to determine the cause of the fire.

"[The case] has been transferred [to the police's arson department] because we have reason to believe that there are victims, deaths," explained Belzil.

Simon-Marc Charron/Radio-Canada
Simon-Marc Charron/Radio-Canada

This weekend, specialists will help the fire department prepare how they can enter the building to investigate the fire's origins and look for anyone who is still missing "while trying to preserve the heritage building," said Guilbault.

Emergency officials say it may take several days or even weeks to determine the cause of the fire.

In a tweet, Alain Vaillancourt, Montreal's executive committee member responsible for public security, said these are "extremely trying times" and his heart goes out to the families of those that are missing.

Airbnbs illegal in this building

Montreal police confirmed the building contained several short-term Airbnb rentals but did not say whether the building owner posted about the listings. 

Offering Airbnb accommodations is prohibited in this area of Old Montreal, according to Vaillancourt. 

"Here, in Ville-Marie, there is a small sector that allows [Airbnb rentals], but in this building, it's not allowed," he said.

"The Ville-Marie borough has never received an Airbnb-type occupancy certificate request for the building, and we have never received an official complaint reporting illegal Airbnbs there either."

In a statement from the city of Montreal, there are only 10 establishments in Old Montreal with such a certificate — one for "tourist residence" use.

The borough adopted a new bylaw on June 12, 2018 to limit the establishment of future Airbnbs by requiring this certificate and an establishment number registered with the Government of Quebec, "otherwise the activity is deemed illegal and represents a breach of the tax system."

In total, only 45 of these certificates are currently in effect in the Ville-Marie borough, despite there being 4,155 listings for the area, according to the independent watchdog group Inside Airbnb.

"No new establishment has obtained a certificate of occupancy for this use since 2018," spokesperson Camille Bégin said.

The city said inspectors intervene when tourist residences generate complaints, particularly for noise and cleanliness. The complaint is then forwarded to Revenu Québec, which is responsible for verifying whether the operator holds the required accreditations.

"Revenu Québec is responsible for conducting investigations and issuing statements of offence relating to the application of the Tourist Accommodation Act," Bégin said.

Revenu Québec did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a statement, an Airbnb spokesperson said the company is providing support to those affected by the fire and assisting law enforcement as they investigate.

"Our hearts go out to the victims of this tragedy and to their families and loved ones," said Matt McNama.