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Families of Montreal fire victims facing agonizing wait for answers

Unstable structure of the building makes it complicated and potentially dangerous to recover bodies
Firefighters continue the search for victims Monday, March 20, 2023 at the scene of last week’s fire that left one person dead and six people missing in Montreal.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Family and friends of the presumed victims of a deadly fire in Old Montreal were facing an agonizing wait for answers on Tuesday, as a recovery team worked to enter the charred shell of the building where one body has been found and six people remained missing.

Yukun Zeng said the wait to hear about what happened to his friend An Wu was “so heartbreaking.”

“I also talked with An’s other friends and other relatives, we still cannot totally understand why it takes so long,” he told reporters near the building. While he understands the investigation is complex, he doesn’t see why police don’t share more about what they’re doing.

Wu is one of the six people missing after a fire ripped through a historic building in Old Montreal on Thursday. The body of one woman was recovered, but she has not been identified.

Zeng described Wu as a neuroscientist doing post-doctoral work at the University California San Diego who was in Montreal for a conference. He said the 31-year-old decided to extend her stay for a night because she loved the city, adding that the late Montrealer Leonard Cohen was her favourite singer and poet.

“I just want to really emphasize she loved the city, and I hope the city also treated her well,” he said.

He said Wu’s parents were coming to Montreal from their home in China, and he hopes that they’ll get more information than he has been able to.

Insp. David Shane told reporters on Tuesday that the unstable structure of the building makes it complicated and potentially dangerous to recover bodies.

Shane said identifying the bodies will be a “long process,” in part because victims need to be identified through at least one scientific method, such as dental records or DNA.

“We will not be able to give names very fast, but we cannot make a mistake,” said Shane, who recognized that the wait could feel “unbearable” for family members.

“We cannot give a name and then a few days later realize that we made a mistake. That is not an option.”

Jonathan Clark, who lives in New York, came to Montreal to say goodbye to his dear friend Saniya Khan, whom he referred to as his “twin flame.”

“Everything that is good is going to remind me of her. Everything that is joyful. That is the hardest part,” Clark said as tears slid down his face.

Clark explained that Khan was in Montreal for a trip with her childhood friend Dania Zafar. Both women, who are now believed to be missing, “were very young, very bright, beautiful, living life,” he said.

Charlie Lacroix, an 18-year-old from the Montreal suburb of Terrebonne, was also identified by her father as one of the missing. Lacroix’s father said his daughter, who had “everything in front of her,” had rented a unit in the building on Airbnb with a friend.

Shane said several floors of the building collapsed on each other, leaving a scene of “devastation.”

Fire operations chief Martin Guilbault said a recovery team explored the scene Monday with the help of cameras and visual inspections from the outside but did not recover any more victims.

On Tuesday, they planned to enter the building, but he said they would have to do much of their work while standing in the bucket of a crane due to the risk of further collapse.

A spokeswoman for the province’s forensics laboratory said the process to identify victims could also be complex, and could rely in part on DNA, which will be matched to samples provided by the victims’ families. The coroner’s office will also be involved in the investigation and the identification of victims.

Police have said the three-storey historic building included units that were rented on the platform Airbnb, which is outlawed by the city in the area. They did not confirm how many of the missing people were tourists.

The fire has prompted renewed scrutiny of the short-term rental platform, and Montreal’s mayor has called for Airbnb to stop listing units that don’t have a permit proving they are operating legally.

Lacroix’s father, who has said his daughter told 911 operators that she was trapped in a unit with no fire escape or windows, has called on the city to ensure Airbnbs and apartments have proper exits.

Airbnb has said it is supporting victims and assisting police, but has not answered questions on whether it is willing to crack down on illegal listings.

—Morgan Lowrie and Marisela Amador, The Canadian Press

RELATED: One dead, six remain missing as police search for victims of fire in Old Montreal