The Montreal police major crimes unit and the arson squad are leading the investigation into a deadly fire in Old Montreal that killed seven people last March.
During a press conference Monday afternoon, police said the focus has shifted to a criminal investigation.
On March 16, authorities responded to the blaze around 6 a.m. at a three-storey heritage building on du Port Street near Place d’Youville.
“A total of 22 people were present when the fire broke out said,” said police spokesperson David Shane at Monday’s news conference.
“Six people escaped unhurt, nine were injured and taken to hospital and seven unfortunately lost their lives inside the building.”
After five months of work, Monday’s announcement is being touted as a breakthrough by police.
“Today, the SPVM’s arson and explosives unit is able to confirm that the accidental cause has been ruled out,” Shane said. “We are now talking about a criminal investigation.”
Shane went on to say traces of accelerant had been found in a certain area where the fire started.
He said the use of an accelerant, combined with the fact that it was an old building can help explain why the fire spread so fast.
Shane said families of the victims were notified of the status change for the case on Monday.
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As for why it took months to determine the fire was criminal, Shane said various protocols have to be respected when ruling out an accidental cause.
As an example, he said the force had only recently received a report from an electrical engineering firm into the cause of the fire.
“Until we can shut the door 100 per cent (on accidental causes) it always remains open,” he said.
A coroner’s investigation into the deadly blaze has been put on hold until the end of the criminal investigation or judicial process.
Most of the fire victims were out-of-towners staying in illegal short-term rentals in the building.
New provincial rules have since come into effect requiring online platforms such as Airbnb to remove all uncertified listings in Quebec.
As of Sept 1, the platforms will also be required to verify registration numbers. Fines of up to $100,000 could be handed out to those that that host listings with fraudulent numbers.
Since the deadly blaze allegations have swirled regarding the safety of the building itself. Images from former residents and Airbnb guests show rooms with no windows.
Furthermore, inspectors with the fire department reported multiple fire code violations in the years leading up to the tragedy.
The building’s owner, Emile-Haim Benamor, was cited on several occasions between 2009 and 2020. Issues ranged from problems with the alarm system to a fire escape staircase being welded shut.
In an interview with French media outlet TVA, Benamor’s lawyer Alexandre Bergevin said it was good news not only for his client but for the victims and their families as well.
“I’m very satisfied for my client and I’m happy for the victims,” Bergevin said in French. “It’s important that they know, as soon as possible, that the cause wasn’t the state of the building but arson committed by a third party.”
He accused the media of depicting his client as a negligent building owner and warned it was important to maintain the presumption of innocence.
Police have not said whether there is one or several suspects in the case or what a possible motive might be.
Shane said all possible criminal infractions are being looked at, meaning charges could range from arson to criminal negligence and even murder, depending on the outcome of the investigation.
Anyone with information is being asked to call 911 or their local police station. It is also possible to communicate anonymously with Info-crime, either online or by phone at 514-393-1133.
— with files from The Canadian Press