Police say Montreal fire last March that killed seven now a criminal investigation

MONTREAL — A fire last March that killed seven people in a heritage building in Old Montreal has turned into a criminal investigation that could lead to a wide range of charges, from arson to murder, city police said Monday.

Traces of fire accelerant were found at the site, which help explain why the flames spread so quickly, Insp. David Shane told reporters, adding that arson experts have determined where they think the fire started and have ruled out an accidental cause.

"It could be homicide, it could be criminal negligence, any infraction that could lead to the death of our seven victims that unfortunately died in the fire," Shane told reporters. He declined to say if police have any suspects.

Seven people died in the March 16 blaze, including a long-term resident of the building and six people who were staying in illegal short-term rentals. Shane said 22 people were inside the building at the time the fire broke out, including nine who were injured.

Inspectors had reported multiple fire code violations during visits in the years leading up to the fire in the building, which was built in 1890.

Documents released by the City of Montreal under access to information laws show that inspectors cited the building's owner, Emile-Haim Benamor, for violations on several occasions between 2009 and 2020, repeatedly finding issues with the fire alarm system, fire doors, emergency lighting and fire extinguishers. The documents show that some of the violations were left unresolved as recently as 2020.

Shane declined to comment on those infractions, which were not investigated by police.

Calls to Benamor and to his lawyer were not immediately returned on Monday.

Shane said it took time to rule out the possibility that the fire was accidental because of the complexity of the investigation — which required obtaining a report from an electrical engineer — and because police wanted to make sure they were right.

"When we put a hypothesis on the side, we want to make sure that there's no turning back," he said.

Police considered the possibility that the fire's origin was electrical, caused by cooking or accidentally started by a smoker, but they ruled out all of those hypotheses, Shane said. He offered few other details on the investigation, which is being conducted by officers from both the major crimes unit and the arson squad.

The victims were Camille Maheux, 76; An Wu, 31; Dania Zafar, 31; Saniya Khan, 31; Charlie Lacroix, 18; Nathan Sears, 35; and Walid Belkahla, 18. The father of one of the victims said his daughter called 911 twice, as flames spread through the building, and told emergency workers that she was unable to escape because the unit she was in had no window.

A coroner's inquest into the deaths is suspended while the criminal investigation follows its course, Shane said.

The fire led short-term rental company Airbnb to pull unlicensed rentals off its website in Quebec. In June, the provincial government passed a bill requiring short-term rental platforms to display the registration number of all rentals hosted on their sites. Those platforms will be required to verify registration numbers starting Sept. 1, with fines of up to $100,000 for platforms that host listings with fraudulent numbers.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 28, 2023.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press