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Two final bodies pulled from rubble after Old Montreal fire, five bodies identified

Total number of people killed in the March 16 fire sits at seven
Investigators survey the scene following a fire in Old Montreal on Sunday, March 19, 2023, that gutted a heritage building. Several people are still unaccounted for. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

The bodies of the final two missing victims of a fire in Old Montreal were pulled from the rubble on Monday, as investigators shifted their attention to uncovering the causes of the deadly blaze.

The total number of people killed in the March 16 fire sits at seven, and fire operations chief Martin Guilbault said there was no reason to believe anyone else was inside the charred building.

“At this stage of the investigation, we can reaffirm that, apart from the seven people who were initially missing, we have no information indicating that additional victims are in the rubble,” he told reporter at the scene. “Our effort will now focus on finding the cause of the fire.”

Montreal police Insp. David Shane on Monday identified four victims as An Wu, 31; Dania Zafar, 31; Saniya Khan, 31; and Nathan Sears, 35. Another victim — 76-year-old photographer Camille Maheux — was identified last week. The remains of the final two victims will be sent to a lab to be formally identified, Shane said.

Guilbault said the fire department was able to secure the structure last Friday, which allowed a more thorough search of the building over the weekend. The two victims were located Monday with the help of volunteer dog handlers from a search and rescue organization, who combed the rubble with the help of a border collie and a German shepherd.

While the dogs will continue to search to ensure there are no more victims, Guilbault said investigators will shift their focus to honing in on the cause of the fire. That’s largely a process of elimination that involves ruling out potential causes one by one, he said.

The building’s historic facade will likely not need to be dismantled, he added.

Shane said that while some fires are criminal in origin, most are accidental. Investigators “start large” and look at every possibility, then narrow down the causes, he said. While criminal causes such as arson or negligence are considered, he said most fires are “involuntary,” with causes such as cigarettes or that originate in kitchens.

Nobody has been charged in relation to the fire.

Guilbault confirmed Monday that police officers had been dispatched Friday to at least one other building belonging to Emile-Haim Benamor, the owner of the building that caught fire March 16. Police said the officers were there for about seven hours. Guilbault did not specify exactly why the officers were sent, but he said it’s not uncommon for the fire department to call on the police to help protect and secure a building.

Some of those missing in the fire had rented their accommodations on Airbnb, which is illegal to use in that part of the city. The tragedy prompted the short-term rental platform to announce last week that it would pull listings in Quebec that don’t have a permit from the provincial government

The confirmed victims of the fire include Wu, a neuroscientist doing post-doctoral work at the University of California San Diego, who was in Montreal for a conference.

Zafar and Khan, who were friends from Toronto and Detroit, were staying in the building during a brief holiday in the city, Zafar’s father has said. Zafar Mahmood has described his daughter, who was self-employed and working in publishing in Toronto, as a free spirit who loved art, books and heritage, and who was in the process of getting Canadian citizenship.

Sears was a political scientist from Toronto, who was listed as having taken part in the International Studies Association conference held in Montreal the week of the fire. “We are all devastated,” University of Toronto professor Steven Bernstein, who was Sears’ PhD thesis supervisor, wrote in an email.

Maheux was a longtime resident of the building and a renowned photographer whose works have been featured by the National Gallery of Canada.

Charlie Lacroix, an 18-year-old from the Montreal suburb of Terrebonne, is believed to be one of the two unidentified victims. She had rented a unit in the building on Airbnb with a friend, and Lacroix’s father has said his daughter told 911 operators that she was trapped in a unit with no fire escape or windows.

—Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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