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Heartbroken families of 7 killed in Old Montreal fire search for answers

For Brittany Sears, the past two and a half weeks have been full of hope, confusion and overwhelming grief.

“My heart has carried more grief than I ever thought was possible.”

Her brother, Nathan Sears, was one of the seven people who died after a fire ripped through a heritage building in Old Montreal on March 16. The 35-year old was staying at an Airbnb in the building during an academic conference.

“Nathan just seemed to excel in everything that he did and to take so much joy in all of the aspects of his life,” Sears said, sitting in her parents home in Grand-Barachois, N.B.

Brittany Sears lost her brother Nathan in a fire that destroyed a heritage building in Old Montreal. Now her family has applied to file a class action seeking damages.
Brittany Sears lost her brother Nathan, 35, in the fire. Her family has applied to file a class action seeking damages from the property owner, short-term rental operator and Airbnb. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

“Of all of the people that I’m grieving for — myself, my parents, his wife, my son — the one who I’m grieving for the most is actually Nathan.”

Now, her family has applied for a class action lawsuit seeking $22 million from the property owner, the short-term rental operator and Airbnb.

With the police investigation ongoing and a public inquiry to come, the families of those killed are looking for answers. 

WATCH | Grieving sister calls deadly fire in Old Montreal ‘completely preventable’: 

heartbroken families of 7 killed in old montreal fire search for answers 1

Grieving sister describes the days after the fatal Old Montreal fire

45 minutes ago

Duration 4:46

Nathan Sears was one of seven people who died in a fire that ravaged a Montreal heritage building in March. His sister, Brittany Sears, describes the agonizing days the family spent waiting for answers and closure.

Family of victims left with questions

The fire caused massive damage to the historic building, first built in 1890, leaving nothing but the facade intact, if precariously so.

Nine people managed to escape as the fire roared. At first, it was unclear who hadn’t.

For two days, firefighters said only one person was missing, a long-time tenant of the building. It then became clear six others who had rented Airbnbs were also unaccounted for, including Nathan Sears.

His sister describes the chaotic days following the fire. 

“That first 24-hour period was filled with confusion and disbelief, but also a lot of hope,” she said. Hope that Nathan had somehow got out.

Portrait of young man with blond hair and glasses looking into camera
Nathan Sears was in Montreal for a conference on international studies and was staying in an Airbnb in Old Montreal when it caught fire, trapping people inside. (Nathan Sears/Facebook)

“We couldn’t get the information that we were looking for. Nobody was keeping us in the loop, we didn’t know what was happening.”

Nathan’s wife travelled from Toronto, his parents from Spain and Brittany from the south of France.

“We collectively spent the next nine days in Montreal, essentially having a vigil at the site of the fire,” Brittany said.

For the parents of 31-year-old An Wu, another one of the victims, the journey was longer.

Woman sitting
An Wu, 31 was staying in an Airbnb in the Montreal building for an academic conference while doing post-doctoral research at the University of California San Diego. (Submitted by Pantong Yao)

Fei Wu and Furong Qu rushed to get visas to be able to travel to Montreal from their home in Tongling, China, all along trying to get news of their only child.

“At the beginning we were not aware of the fire, we were very worried but not hopeless,” An’s mother Qu told CBC in Mandarin, through an interpreter.

“Then we learned it was a fire, we panicked. Again and again we tried to reach her, to no avail. We were anxious as hell.”

An Wu's parents, Fei Wu and Furong Qu, say they are angry about the fire that killed their daughter, and they want answers.
An Wu’s parents, Fei Wu and Furong Qu, say they are angry about the fire that killed their daughter, and they want answers. (CBC)

Fire alarms and Airbnbs

The Sears and Wu families both stood guard outside the building, anxiously watching firefighters and investigators do their work.

All the while, more and more information began to emerge about the building and the fire.

Alina Kuzmina and her husband were staying in an Airbnb there that night, and they describe waking up due to the bright orange flames lapping at their door. They say no fire alarms went off.

Inside, several Airbnbs were being rented, illegal in that part of Old Montreal. Following the fire, Airbnb said it would remove any short-term listings without a provincial permit. 

a building engulfed in flames and smoke with firefighters
A fire broke out in three-storey building in Old Montreal on March 16. (Simon-Marc Charron/Radio-Canada)

A CBC report found that, prior to going up in flames, the building — located near the corner of Place d’Youville and St-Nicolas Street — was considered “a fire trap” by worried renters. 

The family of 18-year-old Charlie Lacroix, another victim, describes her call to 911 that night, where she said she was in a room without any windows.

“We were just trying to grab little glimmers of information, little pieces of the puzzle, because that information was a lifeline for us,” said Brittany.

An Wu’s parents were met with culture shock and a language barrier; quickly, members of the Chinese community gathered around them to help.

“We have shed many, many tears these days, this hurts so, so much,” said Wu.

Wu was told his daughter was found in her bed and died from smoke inhalation. The Sears family was also told Nathan died of smoke inhalation.

The Quebec government announced Tuesday it will hold a public inquiry into the fire. Montreal police have not yet completed their investigation. 

No matter what answers come out of these investigations, the families say, nothing will ever be enough to recover from this tragedy.

“For us, Montreal is a place of heartbreak and indignation,” said Fei Wu.


With interpretation by Radio-Canada International’s Beijia Lin and Yan Liang

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