Two weeks after the Winters Hotel was destroyed in a spectacular fire that killed two people, questions remain about why a resident’s disappearance wasn’t immediately investigated.
And a local Downtown Eastside advocate and a resident who lost her home and all her belongings in the blaze would welcome a coroner’s inquest into the death of Mary Ann Garlow and a second unidentified person who also died in the April 11 fire.
Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services is investigating the fire that was caused by a burning candle in a second-floor room of the building. It was gutted and 71 homes were destroyed, but there were no reports of anyone dying in the fire until Friday, when Garlow’s body was discovered during demolition and the other body the next day.
The Atira Women’s Resource Society, which managed the hotel and other area hotels, said at first that all residents were accounted for. But CEO Janice Abbott on Monday said Atira filed a missing person’s report with Vancouver police on April 12 and followed up with call on April 15, saying Garlow still hadn’t been seen.
Abbott said police called her on April 21 to discuss Garlow’s missing person report.
Vancouver police said they weren’t told for certain until April 19 that Garlow was missing, spokesman Sgt. Steve Addison said in an email Monday.
On April 11, “very quickly after the fire, we were informed from Atira and B.C. Housing that everyone was accounted for,” he said, adding VPD’s missing persons unit was prepared to assist.
“Over the coming days we received conflicting information about whether that (everyone was accounted for) was, in fact, the case.”
On April 19, a hotel employee contacted police to say “that Mary Garlow had not been accounted for, as previously stated to us,” Addison said.
“VPD reopened the investigation and obtained information to suggest Mary was possibly still inside the hotel,” he said. “We passed that information on to fire department investigators, as the building demolition was set to begin.”
Garlow’s body was discovered April 22.
“It had been reported that the Winters Hotel was safely evacuated of all occupants during the fire, and we are disheartened to learn that this account was inaccurate,” said an emailed statement by B.C. Housing on Monday.
B.C. Housing said it’s working with Atira, police and the fire department “to better understand how the two residents were inaccurately accounted for during building evacuation, and if there are any necessary adjustments to policy and procedures.”
Abbott said in a phone interview Monday that she didn’t know who was responsible for accounting for the 71 residents after the fire. She said Atira was told that Garlow had been accounted for, but she couldn’t say by whom: “It doesn’t matter. We believed she was accounted for.”
In a followup text, she said: “It doesn’t matter whose ultimate responsibility it is to account for all of the tenants. We felt obligated to do it and we did everything within our power/scope of authority to account for people, including filing a missing persons report for Mary.
“Whether it’s our responsibility or not, we have been saying since April 12 that we haven’t seen Mary.”
Abbott said she wasn’t sure if it was Atira’s place to call for an inquest but said, “I don’t think that’s ever a bad thing.”
And she said she didn’t know if Atira needed to change any procedures after the fire: “I don’t have enough information from the investigation at this point to answer the question.”
‘Mary is still in there’: Woman identified as one of two victims of Winters Hotel fire
Gastown fire: Scrambling to help the 71 people who lived in the once-grand Winters Hotel
The B.C. Coroners Service is probing the deaths but couldn’t say whether an inquest would be called, said spokesman Ryan Panton in an email.
Dave Hamm of the Vancouver Area Drug Users Network, a group that advocates for area residents on a number of issues, said Atira was responsible for doing a “proper head count,” and he welcomed an inquest.
“I can’t really say who needs to be accountable but somebody needs to be,” said Candice MacLaurin, who lost her home in the Winters Hotel and was at a makeshift memorial Monday, metres away from the demolition at the corner of Abbott and Water streets.
“Lots of people would sneak in there (Winters Hotel) and Atira had no way of knowing how many people were in there,” she said.
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