At least seven people are considered missing and could still be in the rubble following a major fire that raged through a historic building in Old Montreal on Thursday morning, emergency officials said Saturday.
Speaking at a brief news conference late Saturday night, Montreal fire operations chief Martin Guilbault said crews would begin dismantling parts of the building on Sunday in order for investigators to continue their search and determine a cause for the fire.
Investigators had initially said one person was believed to be missing after the fire. But at an earlier news conference Saturday, Guilbault said information recently confirmed from various sources led them to conclude that more people were trapped inside when the blaze broke out before 6 a.m. Thursday.
One of those people is 18-year-old Charlie Lacroix, according to her grandfather, who spoke to reporters from the scene on Saturday.
“She was a happy little girl — beautiful and happy,” Robert Lacas said through tears.
He said all he knows to date about what happened to his granddaughter is what he says a police source told him.
“[Police] received a first call from my little girl who said ‘come and get us because there are no windows where we are, we can’t get out and the fire is burning,'” Lacas said.
He said three minutes later, police received another call from Lacroix saying the same thing. “And then the phone cut out,” he said, breaking into tears.
Lacas is now calling for an investigation into the building’s safety. “It’s not normal that an individual has an apartment where there’s no other access than the door,” he said. “It’s illegal … you have to have two places that you can escape.”
Police have not confirmed Lacas’s account and will not be confirming the names of those that are missing out of respect for their families, a Montreal police spokesperson said.
Police are urging anyone looking for a missing person who could have been inside the building to contact them at 514 280-2222 or visit a local police station.
Firefighters still unable to enter building
Nine people, three of whom had serious injuries, were transported to the hospital Thursday. As of Saturday, two are still receiving treatment in the burn unit.
Alina Kuzmina and her spouse were sleeping in one of the Airbnb rental units inside the building when they were awoken around 5:30 a.m. by what she describes as the sound of an explosion.
“We started seeing the orange flames and the orange light from underneath the door and the sound of crackling fire, so it was pretty clear that there was a fire right outside the door,” she said.
The pair, originally from Cornwall, Ont., quickly gathered what they could and, being in a basement unit, were able to smash a window and crawl through it, escaping with only minor injuries.
Once on the street, Kuzmina recalls chaos.
“I saw a guy who had just fallen from the second floor. I believe he just threw himself out of the window [while] trying to escape the fire,” she said.
Kuzmina said the most alarming part of the experience is that neither of the two fire alarms in her unit went off, forcing her and her husband to wake up to the flames themselves.
“This is very much nightmare material, so my frustration is with how this building is managed,” she said.
Police said Saturday the case had been transferred to the Montreal police arson squad as of Friday night.
Steve Belzil, commander of the arson squad, said he could not provide any information about the identities of the missing people, including whether or not they were residents of the building or people who had rented a space there on Airbnb, for example.
Firefighters have yet to be able to safely enter the three-storey, 15-unit building at the intersection of Place d’Youville and Saint-Nicolas Street in order to investigate.
Authorities therefore are not able to determine the cause of the fire.
“[The case] has been transferred [to the police’s arson department] because we have reason to believe that there are victims, deaths,” explained Belzil.
This weekend, specialists will help the fire department prepare how they can enter the building to investigate the fire’s origins and look for anyone who is still missing “while trying to preserve the heritage building,” said Guilbault.
Emergency officials say it may take several days or even weeks to determine the cause of the fire.
In a tweet, Alain Vaillancourt, Montreal’s executive committee member responsible for public security, said these are “extremely trying times” and his heart goes out to the families of those that are missing.
Ce sont des heures extrêmement éprouvantes pour les familles des personnes qui manquent à l’appel. Je suis de tout cœur avec elles. <br><br>Le <a href=”https://twitter.com/SPVM?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@SPVM</a> et le SIM mettent tout en œuvre pour trouver les réponses aux questions qui restent en suspens. <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/polmtl?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#polmtl</a> <a href=”https://t.co/4F5KCtBgC6″>https://t.co/4F5KCtBgC6</a>