Sprinklers were to be reset the day a Vancouver rooming house fire killed 2: inquest

BURNABY, B.C. — The manager of a Vancouver rooming house where a fire killed two people in 2022 says the sprinkler system was to be reset but the blaze broke out hours before workers arrived.

The jury at an inquest into the deaths Mary Ann Garlow, 63, and Dennis Guay, 53, at the Winters Hotel heard on Thursday that a small fire broke out on April 8, three days before the fatal fire.

Manager Gina Vanemberg testified that rules around using pre−approved tradespeople, and an understanding to avoid overtime, led her to schedule workers to come on April 11 to address an order by the Vancouver fire department that the sprinkler and fire alarm system be serviced.

Vanemberg told the jury that Royal City Fire is the only company approved by her employer, Atira Property Management, to do the work, and it operates Monday to Friday.

While there is no formal rule not to bring in workers on the weekend, she testified that staff are "encouraged" to only call during business hours to protect their very tight budgets.

She said previous calls to Royal City Fire on Fridays were always scheduled to be resolved the following Monday, and in this case she waited until Monday morning to make the call.

A fire captain has testified that the sprinklers would have been turned off after the smaller fire because leaving it running could have resulted in flooding.

Vanemberg described the night of the first fire as "hectic," saying staff had to relocate seven tenants whose units were damaged by flooding caused by the sprinklers, and they were struggling to find available space.

"In hindsight now, there was just too much stuff going on all at the one time to take everything so serious, you know?" she told the jury.

"You have tenants who’ve got water pouring out of their ceiling, who can’t stay In their units, who are screaming and yelling, and it’s just, it’s crazy. And then trying to think clearly, get everything done."

Vanemberg testified Royal City Fire was scheduled to come at 3 p.m. that Monday.

At about 11 a.m. she got a call that the building was on fire again.

"(The staff member) said, ’Gina, the building’s on fire.’ And I didn’t realize the severity because we had had several little fires in the time that I had worked there," she said.

"And I was like, ’Okay, is the fire department there?’ and he just said, ’Gina, the building’s on fire. It’s not going to make it."

Vanemberg broke down in tears during earlier testimony, telling the jury that staff needed better training in fire safety.

She said a "red book" with fire safety procedures was given to her when she became manager of the Winters Hotel in 2020, but no one from her employer, Atira Property Management, went over the paperwork or confirmed that she read it.

The jury has heard that Guay had severe hearing loss and Garlow may have been wearing a brace on her foot at the time of the fire.

Vanemberg testified that there weren’t any systems in place to ensure Guay would know when to evacuate in a fire, and officials with BC Housing never got back to her when she inquired about getting him modifications like a flashing light or vibrating bed.

She told the jury no fire drills were held during the two years she worked at the hotel because of rules against gathering due to the COVID−19 pandemic.

Nearly 30 witnesses are scheduled to testify at the inquest, which is not intended to find fault but can lead to recommendations to prevent similar deaths in the future.

The fire department has said the fatal fire was sparked by unattended candles.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2024

The Canadian Press

Photo: The staff member

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