Candice Maclaurin knelt down Saturday and carefully laid a bouquet of flowers at the site of her home for the past seven years, a single room occupancy hotel that went up in flames last week from an unattended candle, causing devastation for 71 tenants still grappling in its aftermath.
Just a day earlier, the 37-year-old resident was shouting at the top of her lungs to workers hired to demolish the fire-damaged Winters Hotel, which was operated under a lease agreement by Atira Property Management.
“There are people still in there. Mary is still in there,” Maclaurin screamed, holding up a sign in protest. “I knew I wasn’t crazy.”
By late Friday afternoon, demolition work had been halted after two bodies were found. One of them, found on the third floor of the building, has been identified by family as Mary Garlow, a friend of Maclaurin’s.
“Her son, John, was the one who jumped out of the third-floor window during the fire. He broke both his ankles,” she said.
Vancouver Fire Rescues Services Chief Karen Fry said Friday that it took 11 days to discover there were bodies in the building because the fire had been so dangerous, fire crews had not entered most of the building before demolition began.
“Our search is not complete, and we have not gotten into the building. To be completely clear, we are not going into the building, we are not entering the building. It is all through the demolition process and today we had to stop that process and bring our ladder truck down and remove the body,” Fry said.
Postmedia has not been able to verify the identity of the second body recovered in Winters Hotel.
It took a little over a week for the majority of the displaced residents to be relocated from a shelter to a 71-room, Atira-owned hotel in the Downtown Eastside at 303 Columbia St.
Maclaurin, who moved into the building Monday, said “We’re all so sad. John calls us every night from the hospital, asking where his mother is. He doesn’t remember what happened.”
While Atira CEO Janice Abbott told Postmedia the hotel had enough rooms for all of Winters’ displaced tenants before they were scheduled to move in, Doug McInnes said he was told otherwise when he showed up at the hotel Monday.
“An Atira staff member said there were no more rooms left for me,” said the 55-year-old who is currently living with kidney failure after an unsuccessful organ transplant.
“I don’t know why they wouldn’t want me, and I still haven’t even gotten my damage deposit back. It was supposed to be dropped off at Bette’s Boutique last week.”
McInnes has begun searching for low-income accommodation on his own and eating meals at local shelters.
“I’m just glad I was able to grab my son’s ashes from my windowsill before the fire burned everything,” he said while walking down East Hastings Street with the help of a cane.
When Postmedia arrived at the new Columbia Street hotel Saturday, tenant David Canney still hadn’t heard the news.
“I can’t believe Mary is dead,” said the 37-year-old, who admitted he still gets flashbacks of the fire.
“I was in my second-floor room at the time. I never heard any fire alarm or saw any sprinklers go off but when I smelled smoke I rushed out into the hallway. Banisters blew up all around me. One of my neighbours was refusing to leave, crying for help to find his dog.”
After Canney wrestled the man down two floors of stairs and onto the street outside, he returned to the burning building to try to find the pet.
“I made it as far as I could but I was choking on the smoke. It was then I heard the dog, it was on fire, screaming,” he said.
Canney wishes Atira would have offered him and other tenants grief counselling.
“It was the worst thing I’ve ever experienced. Every time I close my eyes I hear that damn dog.”
The deadly blaze wasn’t the first fire that occurred at Winters Hotel.
A fire that ignited April 8 was extinguished by the hotel’s sprinklers before the system was shut off and fire crews issued a notice that the system had to be serviced.
“That was in the process of being done when the fire occurred,” said Chief Fry. “We put systems in place, what we call fire watch. That’s how we discovered the fire. Unfortunately, it got out of control very quickly.”
– With files from John Mackie
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