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'How come Mary Ann wasn't accounted for?' Grieving family of Gastown fire victim left with unanswered questions

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Misty Fredericks is still coming to terms with the fact that  her auntie was found in the wreckage of the Winters Hotel 11 days after the fire that tore through the building in Vancouver's Gastown neighbourhood. 

Fredericks tells CTV News that Mary Ann Garlow – a residential school survivor and member of the Oneida Nation from Six Nations of the Grand River – spent her entire adult life on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside after moving to B.C. from Ontario when she was in her 20s, about 40 years ago.

"She lived and worked and helped people in the community for the rest of her life," Fredericks says. "And she was an exceptional mom because she has a son who requires assisted living, and so they lived together for his whole life.”

Colin Fox was Garlow's friend and neighbour for decades, and he remembers her as selfless. 

“If you were hungry she gave you her sandwiches or if you needed change for something, she’d give you all the change she had. She was just a giver," he said. 

“She’s going to be sadly missed.”

Garlow lived for years in the Balmoral Hotel, where she enjoyed the view of the mountains from her window, before moving to the Winters Residence with her adult son, who was badly injured when fleeing the burning building.

"He managed to escape the fire by jumping out of the third-storey window, but he experienced damage to his feet. He needs some reconstructive surgery on his feet, so he’s going to be in the hospital for quite a while," Fredericks says.

As a memorial to Garlow and an unidentified second victim grows outside the building, Fredericks says she's not only grieving, but seeking answers.

"Everyone’s very saddened. Very shocked by this news. We’re wondering how it could have happened. How come Mary Ann wasn’t accounted for? Why was she discovered later? Why was the sprinkler system not in place?" she asks.

"There’s 71 people to be accounted for, she’s one of them. They said that everyone has been accounted for – obviously not."

MISSING PERSONS REPORT FILED 

Demolition of the fire-ravaged building was halted Friday morning when crews discovered a body. Several hours later, a second person's remains were found.

It is unclear whether the two people died in the fire or after it, and Vancouver Fire Rescue Service Chief Karen Fry declined to speculate on the cause of death Friday.

"Everyone saw the fire," she said. "It was a very large, aggressive fire, and it would definitely be something – if somebody was trapped – that would be very difficult to escape."

The day after the April 11 blaze, officials with BC Housing said no one who had lived in the single-room-occupancy hotel was unaccounted for, but that the damage made it unsafe for firefighters to search some areas of the building.

The Winters Residence is operated by Atira Property Management Inc. as supportive housing. CEO Janice Abbott said Saturday that staff and residents were deeply saddened, although not entirely surprised to learn that someone had died.

"The first body that was found, we were kind of expecting that news. We had filed a missing persons report on her last week," she said, adding one of the person's family members is a long-term staffer.

"We were kind of resigned to that news, still hopeful obviously. Until the body was found, we were still hopeful that they might have gone somewhere and would be found safe … I think there was a moment where we just thought it would be fine because it's been almost a couple of weeks, and I think we thought that if there were bodies to be found they would have been found by now."

Further, Abbott tells CTV News that Garlow was reported missing to the Vancouver Police Department by Atira twice -- once on April 12, and again on April 15. 

"Both were cancelled," she wrote in a message, saying further inquiries would be best directed to the VPD. 

VPD TIMELINE OF INVESTIGATION

Asked to confirm that the reports were filed and then cancelled, a spokesperson for the VPD said the information provided to CTV News was "incorrect."

Const. Tania Visintin provided a timeline of the investigation into the missing persons file on Garlow, and noted that during a news conference with city officials an inspector with the department "did not confirm that all persons were accounted for and stated that it was premature to state they were."

On the day of the fire, Visintin says Garlow was on a list of people who were unaccounted for.

"Later the same day, VPD Missing Persons Unit was advised by Atira/BC Housing that all persons had been accounted for," she explained in an email.  

On April 15, Visintin says police were informed by the housing coordinator of the Winters Hotel that Garlow and two others were not at any of the temporary shelters for displaced residents. Later that day, Visintin says a provincial welfare worker told police Garlow was, in fact, at a shelter.

"Mary was no longer considered missing as welfare is an approved verifier," Visintin added.

On April 19, the VPD reopened the missing persons file after receiving another report from the same worker at the Winters Hotel that Garlow had not been located. On April 20, the day before demolition began, "investigators learned that Mary may actually still be in the building," Visintin said.

"VPD advised Vancouver Fire of this information so they could search for the body as they were doing the demolition."

Typically, buildings are searched twice for occupants, according to the fire department. But in this case, the risk was so great that firefighters could not access areas on the second floor and above. These were the residential floors of the building.

'AS A FAMILY MEMBER, THAT'S NOT ACCEPTABLE TO US'

Fry also announced Friday that the fire department's preliminary investigation into the fire at the Winters Hotel on Abbott Street revealed the fire was accidental and started from unattended candles.

The sprinklers had been turned off after being activated just three days prior to the devastating blaze, according to Fry. Fire crews then issued a notice of violation to have the fire life safety systems serviced, which requires a fire watch being in place until the safety system is operating again.

The fact that the sprinklers were deactivated is one fact that continues to trouble Fredericks.

"I know there’s a fire that happened three days earlier and the sprinkler system worked and reports are that the fire department wanted to upgrade that. But in three days no work had been done?" she says.

"They say that’s a reasonable amount of time to not have that work complete, but as a family member, that’s not acceptable for us. That sprinkler system – if it worked three days prior – potentially could’ve helped with this next fire."

Fredericks says an Indigenous ceremony honouring her aunt is being planned at the site of the Winters Hotel for April 29. 

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Tahmina Aziz, Kendra Mangione, and Alyse Kotyk

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