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Coroner's inquest told of chained door, 'no way out' during fatal Vancouver SRO fire

Workers hose down debris and rubble from the demolition of the Winters Hotel on Vancouver's Abbott Street in Vancouver in April 2022.   (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Workers hose down debris and rubble from the demolition of the Winters Hotel on Vancouver's Abbott Street in Vancouver in April 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Jennifer Hansma will never forget the moment she learned her Vancouver single-resident occupancy apartment building was on fire.

Her friend woke her up on April 11, 2022, by kicking in the door of her room at the Winters Hotel in the Downtown Eastside, she said, allowing her to escape.

Hansma is one of roughly 30 witnesses expected to testify about the deadly blaze at a B.C. Coroner's inquest that launched Monday morning.

"It brings up a lot of bad feelings, a lot of sad feelings," she told CBC News in a Zoom interview. "I'm a little emotional because I put it away for a year, and then I have to bring it all out again, and it's is not a fun time."

On Monday, the inquest's first witnesses testified that the 115-year-old Vancouver rooming house had a chained door at the time of the fire.

The fire left two residents dead. Their relatives testified Monday about the devastating impact of the blaze.

The two-week inquest into the deaths of Mary Ann Garlow and Dennis Guay began with family members describing their loss in the fire that gutted the Winters Hotel in the Downtown Eastside.

Hansma described Garlow, 63, and Guay, 53, as friends. She lost her own cat, and all her possessions in the fire, including her mother's and grandmother's engagement rings and her only photographs of late family members.

"I miss Mary a lot. I miss Dennis. I miss my cat," she said.

Garlow's niece, Misty Fredericks, told the jury that her aunt's son John lived in the same building and jumped out his third-storey room to escape the fire, shattering both legs.

"Mary was his caregiver, always looking out for his well-being, ensuring he was safe and fed," Fredericks said. "The love for her son is what saved John's life.

"It was Mary who made the ultimate motherly sacrifice by making sure her son jumped out the window before the last moments of her life."

Fredericks said it would be too difficult for John to testify but he wanted the jury to know about his love for his mom, and that there were "chains on the door, the sprinklers didn't work and there was no way out."

She said people who knew Garlow said she loved the community that she found in the Downtown Eastside and that some people referred to her as their "street mom."

A statement from Guay's family read to the jury described his love of chess and backgammon and said his death left a "massive void."

The bodies of Garlow and Guay were found during demolition work on the shell of the building more than a week after the April 2022 fire.

Experts told the inquest that DNA from family members was used to confirm the identity of the victims.

The bodies of Garlow and Guay were found during demolition on the shell of the building more than a week after the fire in April 2022. Experts told the inquest that DNA from family members was used to confirm the identity of the victims.

The property manager originally said it was believed all residents had escaped.

A spokesperson for Atira Property Management said in a statement the organization is "relieved" the inquest has begun and will welcome any of the jury's "findings that lead to higher health, safety and security in the supportive housing sector."

Atira added that since the fire, it has created an external safety task force to inspect its buildings monthly, has hired an outside company to check on fire equipment, and regularly educates staff and tenants on fire safety.

The jury heard that Guay had severe hearing loss since childhood and wore hearing aids and read lips to communicate.

His family's statement said Guay loved music and spent years working in various local government positions in northern B.C.

"The grieving process for Dennis's family has been extremely hard, and his death has left a massive void," the family's lawyer, Rebecca Coad, read from the statement. "A piece of the puzzle is missing and cannot be fixed."

The inquest is not to find fault but can lead to recommendations for preventing similar deaths in the future.

Hansma said she is "nervous" for her first-ever testimony, but is confident the truth will be revealed through the inquest and hopes to prevent future tragedies.

"It's basically screwed my whole life up," she said. "All my all my personal belongings are gone.

"I want them to hear what they've done to us. What our life has been like since the fire. How unfair."