February 23rd, 2024

Vancouver fire captain had ‘bad feeling’ just three days before fatal blaze

By The Canadian Press on January 23, 2024.

Debris falls to the ground as demolition resumes on the Winters Hotel after a body was found in the single room occupancy (SRO) building, in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 22, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

BURNABY, B.C. – A Vancouver fire captain says he left with “a bad feeling” after responding to a small fire at a downtown rooming hotel just three days before a catastrophic blaze killed two people and burned the building down to its brick exterior almost two years ago.

Capt. Kris Zoppa says the sprinkler system was running, but he was bothered by the fact he didn’t hear an alarm when he arrived at the Winters Hotel for the first fire on April 8, 2022.

The second fire on April 11 killed Mary Ann Garlow and Dennis Guay.

Zoppa told a British Columbia coroner’s inquest into their deaths that activation of the sprinkler system for the first fire should have triggered the alarm, but he agreed with a lawyer for the inquest that it’s “likely” it didn’t go off at all.

He says he gave the building manager from Atira Property Management a violation notice with instructions to ensure both systems were working properly.

Zoppa says it also included a direction to start a “fire watch” until those systems were up and running, as well as a phone number to call for a re-inspection.

However, Zoppa acknowledged the document did not provide additional details on what exactly the fire watch should entail, and told the inquest he couldn’t recall the specifics of his conversation with the manager, who is set to testify on Thursday.

The sprinkler system would have been turned off after the smaller fire because leaving it running could have resulted in flooding, Zoppa testified.

“I had a bad feeling about that building,” he said of leaving the Winters Hotel on April 8, which marked his last shift for the next four days.

It’s typical for each shift of firefighters to handle their own followup on any violation notices unless a building operator calls in to request a re-inspection, he said.

Zoppa said the April 8 fire had started in a unit that was packed with “hoarding materials” and the smoke alarm had been removed from the room.

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

The bodies of Garlow and Guay were found in the rubble of the hotel during demolition work more than a week after the bigger fire.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 23, 2024.

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