Survivors rally for justice 2 years after a fire killed 2 people and gutted Vancouver’s Winters Hotel

Housing advocates and former residents of a Vancouver hotel that burned to the ground leaving two people dead marked the second anniversary of the tragedy on Thursday and called for fire safety improvements in the area’s buildings.

The Winters Hotel, which was built in 1907, was gutted by a fire on April 11, 2022, displacing more than 70 residents. 

Dennis Guay and Mary Ann Garlow were found dead, and five others were taken to hospital in the aftermath of the fire, which Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services (VFRS) said was started by unattended candles. The hotel, a single-room occupancy (SRO) building in the city’s Gastown area, later had to be demolished.

One of the survivors, Wendy Gaspard said she used to live next door to Garlow, who was a residential school survivor. 

People holding signs depicting photos of victims who who were found dead in the aftermath of a fire that gutted a hotel in Vancouver.
People in the march commemorate Mary Ann Garlow and Dennis Guay, who were found dead in the aftermath of the fire. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

“I was friends with both of them,” Gaspard told CBC News.

Garlow was a kind, beautiful First Nations elder and everybody loved her, Gaspard said, adding Guay was a gifted guitar player and poet.

The Winters Hotel blaze was one of a series of devastating fires in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and surrounding area over the last few years, which have caused growing alarm among residents in the neighbourhood.

Previously shared data from the VFRS shows that fire code violations were found in 38 per cent of the 447 inspections conducted on the 181 SROs in 2022.

According to a report to the Vancouver City Council last year, there were 146 SRO buildings operating as of January 2023, with around 6,500 rooms. Nine of those buildings had been “closed due to fires or city orders for unsafe conditions” since 2019.

Dozens of people like Gaspard who live in the neighbourhood and housing advocates are calling for a sharper focus on fire safety in the area’s buildings.

People at the memorial march marking the anniversary of the fire rallied through Gastown and the neighbouring Downtown Eastside, voicing grievances and advocating for improved management of SRO hotels in the city.

The procession culminated at the offices of Atira Property Management, the non-profit that operated the Winters Hotel as an SRO housing building.

Jennifer Hansma, who lived at the Winters for five years, filed a civil lawsuit against Atira in B.C. Supreme Court in April last year, alleging that the non-profit did not ensure the building met fire safety standards.

A building being demolished as a worker in reflective clothing looks on.
The Winters Hotel building was completely demolished after the fire. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

“Two years ago this was my home, I miss my home,” Hansma said. “I miss my cat. My cat died here because of neglect.”

In response to the accusations, Atira said over the last two years, it has established monthly inspections of many of its SROs and trained staff and residents on fire safety. 

“[We have] established an external safety task force that conducts monthly inspections in all the all-gender SROs,” the non-profit said in a statement to CBC. 

Months after the Winters Hotel fire, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth had ordered a coroner’s inquest into the two deaths at the hotel.

In February, the coroner’s inquest heard that sprinklers in the building didn’t work because they hadn’t been reset after a smaller fire three days earlier. 

The inquest jury made 25 recommendations addressed to B.C. Housing, the Ministry of Public Safety, the City of Vancouver, the provincial Housing Ministry, the Vancouver Police Department, Vancouver Coastal Health and Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services.

The recommendations to B.C. Housing include making lease agreements that hold building operators to higher standards than minimum fire code requirements.

In a statement to CBC, Atira said it “acknowledges and supports 100 per cent of the recommendations from the inquest jury.”

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Posted in CBC