Traces of accelerant found at site of fatal Old Montreal fire

Montreal police say traces of “accelerant” were discovered at the scene of the fire in Old Montreal that left seven people dead on March 16.

It’s a major development marking a turning point in the police investigation, which has been in progress for months. Montreal police Insp. David Shane confirmed Monday afternoon that investigators are now looking at the fire as a criminal event.  

“We are now talking about a criminal investigation,” said Shane, speaking from Montreal police headquarters. “Our investigators have identitfied an area where the fire began.”

Shane refused to specify what kind of accelerant was found, nor did he provide the location where police believe the fire began — only that investigators have ruled out any possibility that it started by accident. 

He also remained tight-lipped on how many, if any, suspects are being considered. He added it’s too soon to name any possible charges which could be laid. “We cannot conduct the investigation in a public manner,” he said.

Police could lay up to seven murder charges in this case, one for each victim, Shane confirmed. Charges will depend on the motives of anyone involved. 

An investigation into the fire was initiated by the Montreal police (SPVM) arson squad. Explosives investigators are also involved. Shane asked anyone with information on the fire to communicate with police, adding that “no detail is too small.”

Most of the victims in the fire were staying at an illegal Airbnb at the heritage building on Place d’Youville. In total, 22 people were inside the building at the time of the fire. Apart from the seven who died, nine people were injured, and six emerged unhurt.

The youngest victims were teenagers Walid Belkahla and Charlie Lacroix, both aged 18. 

Other victims included neuroscientist An Wu, 31, master’s student Saniya Khan, 31, designer Dania Zafar, 31, Global Affairs Canada Fellow Nathan Sears, 35, and photographer Camille Maheux.   

The fire led Quebec to change rules surrounding short-term rentals in the province. The building was a heritage site. Shane said the age, as well as the accelerant, could explain why the fire spread so quickly. 

In the hours after the fire, questions began to emerge about the building’s safety. The family of 18-year-old Charlie Lacroix, one of the seven victims, made two calls to 911, saying she was trapped in a windowless room.

The lawyer for the owner of the building, Emile-Haim Benamor, told CTV News in a lengthy interview that the building was up to code.

Documents obtained by CTV News suggest the building had been flagged by city safety inspectors. Reports from the Montreal fire department provided to CTV through an Access to Information request described problems with fire alarms in the building.

Some survivors told CTV News they did not hear a fire alarm.

The Chief Coroner of Quebec has launched a public inquiry into the deaths of the seven victims following a request from the province’s public safety minister. That investigation has been put on hold while police carry out their criminal investigation. 

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