Questions raised about safety of Old Montreal building destroyed by fatal fire
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.
Four bodies had been found as of Friday afternoon and three 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 questions about safety, 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 Régie 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.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 25, 2023.
Montreal Top Stories
CTVNews.ca Top Stories
Freeland's budget bill passes House after Poilievre pledges to block it
The federal budget implementation bill passed the House of Commons on Thursday, after days of Conservative attempts to block it.
'Tremendous amount we could be doing': Expert shares tips for preventing, adapting to wildfires
As wildfires rage across Canada in what’s being called an unprecedented season, one expert says there’s more that individuals and communities can do to adapt and prevent forest fires from causing widespread devastation.
Supreme Court of Canada won't hear unvaccinated woman's case for organ donation
The Supreme Court of Canada will not hear the appeal of an Alberta woman who was unwilling to be vaccinated in order to get a life-saving organ transplant.
Are more interest rate hikes on the way? Here's what experts say
In the wake of the Bank of Canada’s unexpected rate hike, economists are pointing to further tightening in the near term.
10-year-old girl survives more than 24 hours alone in the rugged Cascade mountains after getting lost while out with her family
Rescuers in Washington state are praising the resourcefulness of a 10-year-old girl who survived on her own for more than 24 hours in the rugged terrain of the Cascade mountains after getting lost while out with her family.
Wildfire battles continue as heat, air quality alerts affect most of Canada
Air pollution from wildfires remained well above healthy levels across much of southern and northern Ontario and several communities in British Columbia and Alberta on Thursday.
4 very young children critically wounded in knife attack in French Alpine town
As bystanders screamed for help, a man with a knife stabbed four young children at a lakeside park in the French Alps on Thursday, assaulting at least one in a stroller repeatedly. The children between 22 months and 3 years old suffered life-threatening injuries, and two adults also were wounded, authorities said.
Liberals unveil plan to make hybrid House of Commons sittings permanent
Government House Leader Mark Holland has unveiled the federal Liberals' plans to make hybrid sittings a permanent feature in the House of Commons.
Premier remains mum on funding to search Manitoba landfill for remains of 2 women
The decision to search a Winnipeg-area landfill for the remains of two First Nations women and who will fund it remains up in the air a month after a feasibility study was completed.
Video captures bus plowing into stopped traffic in deadly Mississauga, Ont. crash
Video has surfaced showing a Mississauga, Ont. transit bus plowing into stopped traffic in a crash that left one person dead and at least eight injured on Thursday morning.
Toronto constable demoted for role in cheating promotions exam
An officer who admitted to playing a part in a scheme to cheat the Toronto Police Service promotions procedure has been temporarily demoted instead.
European family turfed from long-term Airbnb in Toronto to test renters’ rights
A European family who says they were evicted from their long-term Airbnb rental in Toronto last week has sparked a precedent-setting fight.
Higgs government faces caucus revolt over changes to LGBTQ school policy in N.B.
New Brunswick students under the age of 16 who identify as trans and non-binary won't be able to officially change their names or pronouns in school without parental consent.
Halifax says more residents can return home Friday after wildfires
The Halifax Regional Municipality says it will announce Thursday when more residents can return to their homes in communities impacted by the Tantallon wildfires.
N.B. shellfish company shuttered over improper storage of shell waste: environment minister
A company at the centre of a community fight over what residents in the town of Beaurivage, N.B. say is a powerful stench has been ordered to cease operations.
Pride and prejudice: Wortley Pride event learning from controversy during inaugural event
The second annual Wortley Pride Festival takes place June 10 in Wortley Village. During the inaugural event in 2022, a disruption occurred that led to charges against a London, Ont. man, and while off putting for organizers, they have learned from that experience.
Victim transported to hospital after stabbing, 18-year-old man facing charges
A Hanover, Ont. man is left with life-altering injuries after being stabbed following an overnight dispute, Hanover’s chief of police said on Twitter.
GAIA exhibit brings new perspective to 'Mother Earth'
When you walk inside Trivitt Memorial Church in Exeter, Ont., it’s hard not to be taken aback by the sheer size and scale of the Earth, unlike what many people have ever seen.
Wildfire evacuation order west of Sudbury, Ont., expands, highway closed
A wildfire west of Sudbury, Ont., has quadrupled in size prompting evacuation orders to be expanded and one highway to close.
Another northern Ont. resident charged for illegal backyard fire, 5th in one week
A fifth person in northern Ontario has been charged in less than a week for having a campfire during the fire ban.
Here's what you need to do before you leave your house in a forest fire-prompted evacuation
Thousands of Canadians have had to leave their homes in several provinces over the last few weeks due to forest fires. Luckily, there are steps you can take to protect your property, both prior to an evacuation and during.
Worker buried in trench collapse during sewer repairs in Charleswood
Occupational Health and Safety is investigating a trench collapse that occurred at a utility repair site in the community of Charleswood on Thursday.
High River auto body shop owners featured in Discovery Channel reality series
The series is called Bush Wreck Rescue and it's described by the producers as "Western Canadian motorheads obsessed with turning abandoned trucks into custom gems, hunt for old rust buckets, drag them out of the bush and go to great lengths to transform them into vintage classics."
Southern Alberta town cancels alert after cougar sighting
The Town of Magrath in southern Alberta cancelled an alert for a dangerous animal after a cougar was spotted on the Magrath nature trail early Thursday morning.
Cyclist taken to hospital after crash in Kitchener
A cyclist has been taken to an out-of-region hospital with what police call “potentially serious injuries” after a crash involving a vehicle in Kitchener.
Fire at Waterloo house displaces 7 people
Firefighters were called to the house on Laurel Street around noon Thursday.
No working smoke alarms in fatal Waterloo house fire
Fire officials have confirmed there were no working smoke alarms at a fatal house fire in Waterloo earlier this week.
WATCH LIVE | B.C. officials to provide update on wildfire situation, air quality
Smoke has eased in much of Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, but air quality advisories remain in place.
Brazilian curling champion pleads guilty to B.C. sex crimes involving underage victims
A youth curling coach who was a three-time Brazilian champion in the sport has pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual interference, according to authorities in B.C.
Port Moody police seek missing couple last seen 2 weeks ago
Police in Port Moody are asking the public for help locating a young couple that hasn't been seen in two weeks.
Part of Yellowhead County evacuated because of wildfire
An evacuation order was issued for an area near the McLeod River in Yellowhead County on Thursday at noon.
More sexual assault charges laid against John and Leigh Ann de Ruiter
A self-proclaimed spiritual leader and his wife are facing more sexual assault charges, Edmonton police announced Thursday.
Alberta premier plays down prospect of advisory council of defeated candidates
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is playing down an earlier pledge to create a council of defeated Edmonton candidates to advise her.
Police release identity of woman’s body found in Windsor field
Windsor police say they discovered the body of a deceased female in a field near Northway Avenue.
Firefighters battling garage fire in east Windsor
Windsor firefighters are responding to an upgraded working garage in east Windsor.
Slight improvement to Windsor-Essex air quality expected heading into weekend
Air quality continues to be a concern across many parts of Canada, but the air quality index is dropping in Windsor-Essex.
Regina mayor says homeless camp was reaching 'critical point' before teardown
Regina's mayor says the city's fire department had growing concerns about the health, safety and well-being of those living in a homeless camp that was dismantled on Wednesday morning.
Hot Regina schools a symptom of crowded classrooms and chronic underfunding, union says
The uncomfortably hot temperatures some kids are experiencing in classrooms are another sign the province needs to rethink its approach to funding schools, the head of Saskatchewan's teachers' union says.
See Regina's underpasses flood again and again in archival video
A common occurrence not only this year but in years past has been flooded underpasses in Regina following heavy rainfall events. Using the video player in the article, you can see vehicles — and sometimes people — stranded by the sudden floods that have plagued the city over the years.
Air quality improves over Ottawa, but smoky skies could return on Friday
People in the Ottawa-Gatineau area are breathing fresher air, as smoke and haze from wildfires in northern Ontario and Quebec moves out of the area.
Rising interest rates making 30-year amortization more popular for homebuyers
As interest rates continue to rise, the cost of buying a house in Ottawa and across Canada is becoming more expensive. Many homeowners are now forced to extend their mortgage payments.
Bear spotted in Kanata neighbourhood 'safely placed in a cage', police say
Police received a call about a bear sighting in the 500 block of Woodchase Street, near Breckenridge Crescent, at approximately 9 a.m.
'Men like to strike women': Judge slams culture of domestic violence in Sask. during murder sentencing
A man who killed his ex-wife’s cousin will spend life in prison with no chance of parole for 15 years, a judge decided on Thursday at Saskatoon’s Court of King’s Bench.
Veteran Saskatoon city councillor Glen Penner dead at 82
Long-time city councillor and former Saskatchewan Liberal MLA Glen Penner died on Monday, according to a Saskatoon obituary.
Saskatoon property taxes could see 13 per cent hike as city confronts $75M revenue gap
Significant property tax hikes may be needed to cover a funding shortfall, according to City of Saskatoon administration.