‘No slumlords’: Winters Hotel survivors rally 2 years after deadly fire

Click to play video: 'Survivors of Winters Hotel fire march through Gastown, demand support'
Survivors of Winters Hotel fire march through Gastown, demand support
As survivors reflect on the anniversary of the Winters Hotel fire, all levels of government are still working to phase out SROs for good. Kristen Robinson reports. – Apr 11, 2024

Survivors of the deadly Winters Hotel fire and their supporters staged a rally in Vancouver Thursday to mark the two-year anniversary of the tragedy.

The single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel in Gastown was consumed by fire on April 11, 2022, killing 68-year-old Mary Garlow and 53-year-old Dennis Guay.

The fire also left five people in hospital and displaced more than 70 people, a women’s shelter and several businesses.

Click to play video: 'Winters Hotel inquest: Jury recommends changes to SRO policies'
Winters Hotel inquest: Jury recommends changes to SRO policies

The demonstrators met outside the site of the ruined hotel at Abbott and Water streets, before marching to Oppenheimer Park.

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Organizers of Thursday’s rally say the building’s operator, Atira Property Management, failed to provide the fire’s victims with proper care or compensation, and that many are still dealing with trauma and illness related to the fire.

They also say Atira, BC Housing and the City of Vancouver have failed to answer key questions, including why Atira was allowed to operate the building despite several active fire violations, why staff weren’t informed of a fire watch in the days preceding the tragedy and why donations collected by Atira allegedly weren’t distributed to survivors.

Survivors told Global News they remain haunted by the fire.

“I just grabbed on to the person I felt in front of me, I couldn’t see nothing, the building was black,” former Winters tenant Jennifer Hansma said.

Wendy Gaspard told Global News she lived next door to both Guay and Garlow, and only escaped the fire because someone woke her up.

“I looked back and it was horrifying what was behind me I didn’t have time to go even knock on their doors and I heard screaming,” she said.

Click to play video: 'Winters Hotel inquest: Jury makes several recommendations after deadly fire'
Winters Hotel inquest: Jury makes several recommendations after deadly fire

Hansma’s hair and fire were burned in the fire, and her beloved pet cat died.

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“It was a mess. It still is a mess. I have nightmares, I don’t sleep. I’m on pills to sleep, I’m on pills for this, pills for that since the fire and it doesn’t work,” she said.

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“We are finally dealing with all the emotions of dealing with the fire and we have no help to deal with those emotions and a lot of us are losing our marbles.”

Hansma said many of the building’s tenants had been moved together from the now-shuttered Balmoral Hotel. They’ve since been dispersed, she said, shattering their small community.

“We were a family,” she said. “When you pull the threads apart it falls apart, and I don’t want that to happen.”

Inquest calls for move away from SROs

In February, a coroners’ inquest jury ruled Garlow and Guay’s deaths to be accidental and determined unattended candles caused it.

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The inquest detailed how the deadly fire happened just three days after another fire in the building, which was extinguished by sprinklers. Vancouver Fire Rescue Services had ordered Atira to have the building’s fire systems serviced and the sprinklers reset.

Those actions weren’t taken right away. A contractor was scheduled to address the issues at the building on the day of the fatal fire.

VFRS and the City of Vancouver also testified about “unsatisfactory” inspection results in April and June of 2021, along with 18 life-safety violations including missing smoke detectors, items hanging from sprinkler lines and fire door closures that weren’t operational.

Click to play video: 'Non-profit’s training, operations questioned as Winters Hotel inquest wraps up testimony'
Non-profit’s training, operations questioned as Winters Hotel inquest wraps up testimony

Among the number of recommendations included phasing out SROs in private buildings.

The City of Vancouver has passed a motion aimed at phasing out SRO housing.

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City councillor Pete Fry said it is common knowledge that the units are “not ideal,” but acknowledged the process will be lengthy and costly.

“It’s really a question for the provincial government and BC Housing. Because at the City of Vancouver, we’re not in a position or even in the business of building that kind of scale of housing,” he said.

“Certainly we’re going to facilitate it and we’re looking to the whole region to maybe pull some of the weight around housing for society’s most vulnerable tenants, but we do need that big investment.

In a statement, the Ministry of Housing said it is still reviewing the inquest’s recommendations.

“We know SRO hotels are not a long-term housing solution for a majority of people, and we need to phase out their use over the long term,” the statement reads.

“The Province and BC Housing are actively renovating and upgrading SRO units and are currently in discussions with the federal government and the City of Vancouver to phase out or improve SROs — either by renovating the units into self-contained suites or replacing them altogether.”

Click to play video: 'Winters Hotel classified as ‘low-risk’ before fatal fire'
Winters Hotel classified as ‘low-risk’ before fatal fire

It said BC Housing, meanwhile, is working on ensuring fire safety policies and procedures are up to date.

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Atira said no one was available for an interview, but in a statement said it grieves for those lost in the tragedy and has fully accepted the inquest’s recommendations.

“Over the last two years, we have worked hard since then to improve safety in all the buildings that house our tenants, including ensuring all staff have appropriate training and resources in place in the event of another life-threatening emergency,” Atira said.

It pointed to a number of new measures, including the creation of an external safety task force to inspect SROs, holding education sessions for tenants and staff, and hiring an external consultant to audit fire safety and security.

Click to play video: 'Lawsuit launched by survivors on anniversary of deadly Winters Hotel fire'
Lawsuit launched by survivors on anniversary of deadly Winters Hotel fire

Gaspard, who now lives in another SRO building, told Global News that while the housing was not ideal it remained affordable on her limited budget.

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“Whatever we have, we need stricter controls over the way in which things are managed, and not stricter controls over the tenants,” she said.

“Lets let people live with dignity,” she added. “No slumlords please.”

Last April, survivors filed a proposed class action lawsuit over the fire, alleging the City of Vancouver and Atira breached their duty of care to residents.

None of those claims have been proven in court.

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