An employee of the company that managed the Winters Hotel said he did not know if there ever was a fire drill at the Gastown single-room occupancy hotel.
Chauncey Carr, the director of supportive housing programs and tenant relations for Atira Property Management, testified Jan. 30 in Burnaby at the Coroner’s Inquest in the deaths of tenants Mary Ann Garlow, 63, and Dennis James Guay, 53. Their bodies were found in the rubble, after the devastating April 11, 2022 blaze.
“In hindsight, I didn’t realize how dangerous the Winters was, it’s a 113-year-old building,” Carr testified. “By modern standards, I don’t know if those plans would have ever been approved with the open atrium style, with the building materials that were used. It was an old fire panel system.”
Carr said that he would take a weekly walk through the building and check fire extinguishers.
“The only thing that ever really caught my eye was the breakaway glass not being on the extinguisher cases, but there was no other fire safety stuff that really caused any alarm bells for myself,” he said.
Carr said break-ins, including people climbing through fire escape doors, and hoarding in rooms were issues. He said would only look inside a room if a door was open, because he was focused on common areas.
Several months before April 2022, building management had closed fire escape doors with chains in order to prevent break-ins, but he saw to it that the chains were removed.
Carr said he did not recall any evacuation instructions being posted inside rooms and the only “tools” to deal with fire hazards inside units were do not occupy orders and eviction notices.
“We often would just try to work with residents if hoarding got particularly bad, then we can call the fire department for a DNO [do not occupy], but that was kind of an option of last resort.”
Carr was called to the Winters on April 8, 2022 after a fire. He arrived as fire crews were leaving and was given a copy of a notice of violation. He gave it to building manager Gina Vanemberg. Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services (VFRS) ordered management to immediately hire a qualified technician to service the fire alarm and sprinkler and provide 24-hour fire watch until the system could be reset and fully functional.
“I helped her find other rooms for residents. She called in the restoration company and I told her to call the fire safety company to reset the panel and refill the sprinklers,” Carr testified.
On the morning of April 11, 2022, Carr was called to the Winters because of another fire. This time, it was out of control.
“I was basically in a panic, I tried to go inside to help evacuate the building, but the fire department didn’t let me,” Carr testified. “So I started working with my colleagues and finding a place for people who had to be evacuated to go to and to find everyone from the building.”
He was asked if Atira had a system in place in case of a mass-evacuation, such as a roll call.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Despite the VFRS order, the sprinklers were not working when unattended candles caused the fire that engulfed the building.
The inquest, before Presiding Coroner John Knox and a jury, continues Wednesday. The job of the coroner’s jury is to find facts, not fault, and make recommendations to help prevent a similar tragedy.
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