The fire that killed seven people in Old Montreal in March was intentionally set, Montreal police investigators now believe.
“We are now talking about a criminal investigation,” Insp. David Shane said of the fire which tore through a heritage building on Place D’Youville.
Investigators from the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal‘s major crimes unit have taken over the investigation, joining their colleagues on the arson squad who have been investigating the fire from the beginning. No arrests have been made, but investigators have located the site where the fire began and Shane said traces of an accelerant were detected.
“I can confirm that traces of accelerant were found there which can explain the speed at which the fire engulfed the building,” Shane said.
Shane did not say what kind of accelerant was used, nor where the fire began: inside or outside the building. He also declined to say if police already had a suspect on their radar.
The night of the fire, there were 22 people in the building. Six of them escaped unharmed, nine were injured and seven died. Almost all of them had been staying in illegal Airbnbs.
The fire raised concerns about illegal rental units in Old Montreal and other areas popular with tourists.
The victims included Dania Zafar and her best friend Saniya Khan, who were staying in an Airbnb in the building for one night, Charlie Lacroix, 18, whose friends and family described her as bubbly, An Wu, 31, a scientist in town for a conference, Nathan Sears, an academic from Toronto also in town for a conference, Walid Belkahla, 18, who was spending the evening with friends and Camille Maheux, who lived in the building and was a documentary photographer.
A CBC report following the fire found that, prior to going up in flames, the building was considered a “fire trap” by worried renters.
Inspectors had flagged a number of fire safety violations at the building, which is owned by Emile Benamor, including a lack of smoke detectors and problems with its fire escape.
But Alexandre Bergevin, Benamor’s lawyer, said in an interview on Monday that the criminal investigation into the fire was good news for his client because it showed that someone else was to blame.
“What’s important about it, finally, is that my client was seen in the media as being responsible for this fire,” he said. “But what we’re learning now is that there was another cause. It was a criminal fire committed by someone else who has no connection with my client.”
A coroner’s public inquiry, which was supposed to shed light on the conditions in the building and what could have been done to prevent the deaths, is now postponed while criminal investigators do their work, Shane said.
Mazhar Khan, Saniya Khan’s father, said Monday that police had called him to inform the family of the development in the investigation.
“We are heartbroken and this news has reopened our wounds,” Khan said, reached by phone in Detroit where the family lives and where Saniya had been pursuing a master’s degree in public health.
Khan says the months since the fire killed his daughter and her friend Dania Zafar, and five other people, have been difficult, but that his family has tried to cope by honouring their daughter at every meal and every location in town that reminds them of her — a mall where they used to shop, the parks she enjoyed walking in.
“We haven’t forgotten. We have so many memories together,” he said.
To Khan, more could have been done to make the building safe.
“People had been complaining about it for years,” he said. “I wish the city or the authorities, that they would have listened to those violations and corrected them in time. So, these lives could have been saved.”
Source : CBC