MONTREAL — A lawyer representing the father of a man killed in a fire in Old Montreal says the fact police are now investigating the fire as arson raises new questions for victims' families.
Melissa Lonn is representing Randy Sears, whose son, Nathan, was among seven people killed when a heritage building hosting illegal short-term rentals caught fire on March 16.
Lonn and Sears are seeking authorization to launch a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the families and estates of all the fire's victims. The proposed lawsuit names the building's owner, short-term rental platform Airbnb and a man who was operating rentals out of the building as defendants.
"(The victims) have been waiting many, many months for an answer of what was the cause of the fire," Lonn said in an interview. "There's no information yet if there's a suspect, or if there's a motive. The fact that it's criminal is obviously quite shocking and difficult to absorb for the clients right now, especially because there still remain so many questions that they don't have answers to yet."
On Monday, Montreal police Insp. David Shane said investigators found where the fire started, as well as traces of accelerant. He said the probe is now a criminal investigation that could lead to a wide range of possible charges, from arson to murder.
Marcus Morin, a certified fire and explosion investigator, said finding where a fire started is an important step in the fire investigation process.
"Essentially, the job is to tell the story of a fire but starting from the end," Morin said of fire investigations. He said experts start by looking at the general state of the building, noting the most damaged areas and marks left by smoke.
"Then, inside, we'll analyze it room by room, look for signs of charring, particularly soot marks, the damage to the building and we'll come to an area where several elements tell us is the place where it started," he said.
Finding where the fire started can answer important questions about the cause, said Morin, who trains fire investigators and runs a company that uses drones to assist in fire investigations conducted by insurance companies and authorities.
For example, he said, if a fire started on a kitchen countertop where a small appliance is located, investigators would look at the remains of the appliance to see if it started the fire, while a fire that started in a bedroom where traces of gasoline are present would likely be criminal in nature.
In the Old Montreal fire, police said they found traces of accelerant. Morin said that could be any material that contributes to the rapid spread of a fire, including gasoline or other flammable materials.
Fire investigations are scientific, Morin said, and are often slow and methodological. In complex cases, such as those where deaths have occurred, outside specialists are often brought in to provide additional insight.
"The investigation of the fire is just a small part of the criminal investigation," he said. "The criminal investigation is an enormous job because it has to be proven beyond any reasonable doubt. It's a job that can take even longer."
Camille Maheux, 76; An Wu, 31; Dania Zafar, 31; Saniya Khan, 31; Charlie Lacroix, 18; Nathan Sears, 35; and Walid Belkahla, 18, all died in the fire. Maheux was a long-term resident of the building, while the others were staying in short-term rentals. The father of one of the victims said his daughter called 911 twice, as flames spread through the building, and told emergency workers she was unable to escape because the unit she was in had no window.
A coroner's inquest is also scheduled to take place, but it will be suspended until the police investigation follows its course and any subsequent criminal trials take place, Shane said.
Due to court delays, Lonn said the proposed class-action lawsuit – which was filed March 31 – is unlikely to be authorized before the summer of 2024.
It could also be a long time before families get closure from the police investigation, she said.
"They have a lot more questions and there's going to be a lot longer wait before they have those answers," she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 29, 2023.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press