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Old Montreal building flagged for violations prior to fire that killed 7 people

The Old Montreal building that erupted in flames, leaving seven people dead last March, was flagged repeatedly for fire safety violations in the years leading up to the incident.

Documents obtained by CBC News under access-to-information legislation show the owner, Emile Benamor, had a history of violations starting in 2009, shortly after he bought the historic greystone located at the intersection of Place d’Youville and Saint-Nicolas. 

Problems persisted at the building over the next decade, according to inspection reports by the Service de sécurité incendie de Montréal.

In May 2018, Cynthia MacDougall, a fire inspector, found 10 violations during a visit to the building, including the lack of a working fire alarm, no clear signage for the emergency exits and a missing smoke detector in the stairway. 

The problems had not been addressed when the inspector returned in September of that year. 

Geneviève Tremblay, another fire inspector who visited in February 2019, found that the fire alarm was not up to code and not loud enough to ensure tenants could hear it inside their units. 

Service de sécurité incendie de Montréal
A 2020 inspection found multiple violations at the Old Montreal building, including a fire alarm that was not up code. (Service de sécurité incendie de Montréal)

Those problems had also not been addressed when the inspector returned to do a follow-up in October 2020.

Inspectors also had trouble meeting Benamor on several occasions.

During that visit in 2019, for example, Tremblay tried to meet with Benamor but instead was only able to speak with his secretary. He also wasn’t present for the follow-up visit.

Based on the inspection reports, it’s unclear if all of the problems listed were eventually addressed.

Wooden staircase, view from above
One of the wooden staircases inside the building, photographed in 2018 by an inspector with the Service de sécurité incendie de Montréal. (Service de sécurité incendie de Montréal)

Benamor did not immediately return a request for comment through his lawyer, Alexandre Bergevin.

The city of Montreal also did not return a request for comment. The last recorded inspection of the building appears to have been in 2019, though officials appear to have followed up on the case file in 2021 and 2022. 

a view of a red fire alarm
The fire alarm system, seen here in 2018, was flagged by an inspector with the Service de sécurité incendie de Montréal. (Service de sécurité incendie de Montréal)

Former tenants and guests at the building have told CBC they had safety concerns. One said it felt like “a fire trap.” 

The building housed long-term and short-term rentals, including Airbnbs, which are prohibited in this area of Old Montreal under a bylaw adopted in 2018. One of the units had no windows. 

(None of the inspections obtained by CBC mentioned a windowless apartment.)

Airbnb has since said it would remove all Quebec listings that have not been authorized by the provincial government.

The Quebec government has ordered a public inquiry into the fire. 

Watch | Grieving sister describes the days after the fatal Old Montreal fire:

old montreal building flagged for violations prior to fire that killed 7 people 3

Grieving sister describes the days after the fatal Old Montreal fire

22 days 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.

Randy Sears, the father of one of the victims, has applied to launch a class-action lawsuit against the building’s owner, the operators of the short-term rental units and Airbnb.

Sears claims there was a lack of safety equipment in the building and the units did not meet municipal safety standards. His claims have not been tested in court.

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