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Seven missing after blaze destroyed Old Montreal building, fire officials say

Investigators and firefighters are shown at the scene following a fire in Old Montreal, Saturday, March 18, 2023, that gutted the heritage building. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

MONTREAL — Fire officials now say at least seven people are missing after a blaze destroyed a building in Montreal's historic district Thursday.

Investigators initially said one person was believed to be missing in the fire that also injured another nine people.

"The information confirmed in the last few hours, from various sources, allows us to believe that there may be victims inside the debris," Montreal fire operations chief Martin Guilbault said Saturday. 

Guilbault said in a Saturday evening news conference that the building will be slowly taken down beginning Sunday morning.

"We want to announce tonight that we're gonna take down this building slowly, stone-by-stone, to make sure that the environment inside here is safe for all the people from the fire department and the police department to do their work," said Guilbault.

More than a dozen emergency responders were still on the scene on Saturday, where a parameter had been set up and part of the street was blocked off. The smell of smoke was still present in the air. 

A memorial of flowers was also set up in front of the building where people stopped to pay their respect as they wiped away tears.

The cause of the fire remains unknown, Guilbault said, adding that the investigation is being led by the Montreal police arson squad.

Fire officials said two of the nine injured people suffered serious burns and remain in hospital.

Alain Vaillancourt, a member of the city of Montreal's executive committee responsible for public safety, said that he had spoken to several families with missing loved ones who came to the site of the fire Saturday. 

"(The families) think maybe (they) are in the building," Vaillancourt said in an interview. "Now, honestly, I am upset by this news. I want to reassure them that we are doing everything in our power so that the investigation progresses quickly."

During the evacuation of the three-storey building Thursday, six people had to be rescued by ladder.

Earlier Saturday, firefighters were still unable to enter the building that housed an architectural firm and residences. 

"At this time, it is not possible to conduct a safe search in the building, which must first be secured," Guilbault said. 

Montreal police arson commander Steve Belzil said that investigators are focused on gathering information from the people who lived in the building. He added that they had already met with the people who were hospitalized. 

"As you know, the site is not accessible for us to start our investigation, so a drone allowed us to go and get images," Belzil said. 

Belzil was not able to confirm whether the missing people were tenants of the building or tourists staying in a short-term rental.

"Right now, we're not talking about arson. It was transferred (to the police) because we have reason to believe that there are victims, deaths," Belzil explained. 

In total, 130 firefighters responded to the fire to keep it from spreading. 

Montreal fire Chief Richard Liebmann said Thursday there was some confusion over how many people were inside the Old Montreal building at the time of the fire, because several apartments were Airbnb rentals.

Vaillancourt said the city has been cracking down on Airbnb rentals for several years and called it a "problem."

"In this sector (the site of the fire), it is not legal to have Airbnb rentals, but we will have to wait for the investigation to be over to find out whether that was the case here or not," he said.  

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 18, 2023.

Helen Moka and Marisela Amador, The Canadian Press

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