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'Bricks versus bodies': Father agonizes over pace of recovery efforts in old Montreal fire


As the search for victims of a five-alarm fire in Old Montreal stretched into its fifth day on Tuesday, friends and family members are getting frustrated with the pace of the investigation and lack of answers.

Mazhar Khan arrived in Montreal over the weekend in the hopes of getting access to the remains of his daughter, Saniya Khan, 31, but was told search efforts could be several days or longer.

He's desperate to see the search efforts move quicker into the devastating fire at the heritage building on Port Street, which firefighters have said will have to be taken down "stone by stone."

"My personal feeling is it's about bricks versus bodies. All that they care about, they're more concerned about saving the bricks," Khan told CTV News from Toronto.

"So what about bodies? What about people? That's my question. They don't care about the bodies … our children, they are our flesh and blood."

What Khan described as a "spontaneous" trip to Montreal his daughter took with her childhood friend has turned into a nightmare for his family.

Saniya is the eldest of four siblings and a master's student in public health at Wayne State University in Detroit. Her father said she and her childhood friend, Dania Zafar, booked an Airbnb at the building at the centre of the deadly fire.

Zafar, 31, is also reported missing, according to Khan and the consul general at the Pakistani consulate in Montreal.

Childhood friends Dania Zafar, 32, and Saniya Khan, 32, were both staying at the same Airbnb in Old Montreal and are reported missing. (Submitted photo)

Khan hasn't heard from either of the young women since Wednesday morning and both of their phones go straight to voice mail, he said.

"It's agonizing," he said from his friend's home in Toronto, where he is staying until he returns to Montreal.

"It's hurting also. Every moment we are thinking about her, we are talking about her. So at least we are supposed to have a body so that we can, you know, bury it in a decent manner. That's what she deserves. But we're not getting any answers to that, actually, when and how."

Saniya Khan, 32, is one of six people who are still missing after last week's deadly fire in Old Montreal. (Submitted photo)

Police said Tuesday morning there were still six people missing following the fire last Thursday. As of Tuesday evening, the bodies of two people, one of whom is a woman, have been recovered from the rubbled. Neither of them has been identified. The blaze injured nine other people, two of them critically.

Khan said he came back to Detroit to support his family but has since decided to stay close by, in Toronto, in case there is any news about his daughter.

"I'm just waiting as soon as they call me. So I'll be there," he said.

Khan said he expected he'd need to provide a DNA sample to assist in the investigation, but said no progress has been made on that front.

Montreal police said Tuesday morning at a news conference that identifying the bodies will be a "long process" that will include DNA analysis.

"We will not be able to give names very fast, but we cannot make a mistake," said Insp. David Shane, who recognized that the wait could feel "unbearable" for family members.

"We cannot give a name and then a few days later realize that we made a mistake. That is not an option."

A spokeswoman for the province's forensics laboratory told The Canadian Press the process to identify victims could also be complex, and could rely in part on DNA, which will be matched to samples provided by the victims' families. The coroner's office will also be involved in the investigation and the identification of victims.

Jonathan Clark, who lives in New York, came to Montreal to say goodbye to Saniya, his dear friend Khan, whom he referred to as his "twin flame."

"Everything that is good is going to remind me of her. Everything that is joyful. That is the hardest part,” Clark said as tears slid down his face.

Clark said both women “were very young, very bright, beautiful, living life."

The pace of the investigation is also causing heartache for other loved ones who are desperate for answers.

"They ask me lots of things, but once I try to ask them anything about what's happening, like, for example, why they are so sure only six people are missing, the only answer I get is, 'Oh, it’s under investigation,'" said Yuken Zeng, a friend of one of the missing people, 31-year-old An Wu.

Zeng flew to Montreal on Monday looking for answers about his friend.

Charlie Lacroix, 18, has also been identified by her father as one of the missing occupants of the building.

LISTEN on CJAD 800 Radio: Heritage professionals and Montreal's fire department should work jointly to protect older buildings

With files from The Canadian Press Top Stories

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