MONTREAL – More than a week after a fatal fire tore through a building in Old Montreal, accounts from former tenants and victims of the blaze are raising questions about the safety of the heritage property.
Five bodies had been found as of Saturday evening and two people were missing in the shell of the once-elegant greystone building.
Police and firefighters have said it’s too soon to say what caused the fire. But witnesses have raised concerns, including whether smoke detectors were working and whether there were proper emergency exits.
A rental tribunal decision shows that in 2012, the owner, Emile-Haim Benamor, blamed actions of a tenant for creating a risk of fire in the building. The comments are found in a Sept. 6, 2012, decision from Quebec’s Regie du logement, stemming from a dispute between Benamor and a tenant whose lease he was trying to end. According to the document, Benamor claimed the tenant was “manipulating electricity” and had “modified or added” electrical systems and overloaded the building’s circuits.
“The landlord insists that in the current state of things, the building is not profitable, he is unable to have access to the apartment … that there is a risk of fire and he says he is being monitored by insurance companies, especially since it’s a historic building,” the tribunal’s decision says.
The landlord also called a witness from the insurance company Lloyd’s, who testified that the unit presented safety concerns. In an affidavit included in the tribunal decision, Michel Frigon said the unit was not originally intended to be an apartment but rather a storage area. Frigon noted that access to the unit was required to perform maintenance of the building’s heating and electrical systems.
“The shower adjoining the electrical entrance to the dwelling presents a real danger of electrocution,” he added, saying a new insurer would likely have to be found if the problems weren’t fixed.
But in her written decision, administrative judge Jocelyne Gascon concluded there was little convincing evidence to suggest the tenant, Piotr Torbicki, was to blame for any electrical issues.
“The various electrical systems, although they appear to the court to be non-compliant, obsolete, the evidence offered did not establish that it was a recent addition,” Gascon wrote. She did not offer an opinion on Benamor’s comments about the risk of fire.
The building, known as the William-Watson-Ogilvie building, was built in 1890 and originally housed the offices of a flour company. It was gradually converted to residential use between the late 1960s and the 1980s, with the office of an architecture firm remaining on the ground floor. Municipal property records show Benamor, a lawyer, bought the building in 2009.
Since the fire, both the father of a missing woman and a former tenant have said at least one of the units had no windows or fire escape, while survivors of the fire have suggested the fire alarms never went off.
Louis-Philippe Lacroix said his 18-year-old daughter Charlie, who is presumed missing in the fire, called 911 twice within several minutes to say she was unable to get out of the unit she and a friend were staying in, which had no window and no fire escape.
A survivor of the fire, Alina Kuzmina, said that while the semi-basement unit she’d rented with her husband had fire alarms, she doesn’t remember hearing them go off. Kuzmina was able to escape the building by breaking a window and crawling out.
The owner this week responded to the claims through his lawyer, saying the alarm system was replaced in 2019 and regularly tested. Regarding the emergency exits, lawyer Alexandre Bergevin said the building’s layout is complex.
“It has always been deemed compliant in the past,” he said in a text message.
A former tenant spoke on condition that he not be identified, saying he fears reprisals from Benamor, who owns multiple buildings in the city. The former tenant said that in recent years long-term tenants have gradually left and been replaced by units rented on the short-term rental platform Airbnb. He also said some units had been subdivided, and at least one did not have windows.
Benamor’s lawyer, Alexandre Bergevin, said in an interview Friday that the short-term rentals in the building were the work of tenants and not his client. He said one person was renting seven units in the building and “illegally” listing them on Airbnb. He said that Benamor had told the person to stop the short-term rentals, and they had reached an agreement for him to leave the building by July 1.
“It’s a real scourge, it’s uncontrollable,” Bergevin said of the Airbnb rentals. “He had doubts on several tenants in several buildings, but it’s quite difficult to get the proof of all that.”
The lawyer acknowledged that one apartment in the building “didn’t have a window in the traditional sense of the term,” but it did have a skylight.
Asked whether the smoke detectors were working, he replied: “That’s an excellent question. We don’t know yet.” But he said there were detectors in all apartments, the central detector had been working the day before the fire and it would be surprising if all of them failed.
Bergevin said he was not aware of any specific electrical problems, including those raised in the 2012 rental tribunal decision, but noted that the building dates to the 19th century.
“It’s certain that it’s not the electricity we know today,” he said, adding that at certain points when issues arose, qualified electricians worked in the building.
Benamor, he said, has felt under attack since news broke that people had died in the fire.
“The public trial, while we have no idea of the causes of the fire, is causing him a lot of psychological distress,” he said.
Feature image: Investigators and firefighters are shown at the scene following a fire in Old Montreal, Saturday, March 18, 2023, that gutted the heritage building. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes