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Gastown hotel ravaged in fire to be demolished by end of week

Fire department still investigating cause of blaze to Winters Hotel at 203 Abbott St.

A century-old Gastown hotel that was home to some of the city’s most vulnerable citizens before being ravaged in a fire April 11 is scheduled to be demolished by the end of this week, according to the city’s chief building official.

Saul Schwebs said demolition crews were starting Tuesday to dismantle the Winters Hotel at 203 Abbott St. and could have it knocked down by Thursday evening, with cleanup of the large corner property expected Friday.

“The city will make every effort to finish the demolition process as quickly as possible with all safety precautions in place,” Schwebs told reporters Tuesday at a news conference held outside the building. “We appreciate this difficult disruption to residents and businesses.”

The four-storey single-room-occupancy hotel, which was built in 1907, caught fire April 11 in one of the rooms before quickly spreading through the building, with flames ripping through its roof.

Firefighters rescued six people and five were hospitalized, including a tenant who jumped from the top floor of the building.

Capt. Matthew Trudeau of Vancouver Fire Rescue Services said Tuesday that investigators were still investigating the cause of the blaze, which at one time attracted 60 firefighters and 13 firefighting apparatus.

'Very unsafe condition'

What contributed to the hotel’s demise was how it was built: it has a brick exterior and its inside is framed in wood, which fuelled the fire and caused so much damage that Schwebs concluded it was beyond repair.

“What I saw was that the roof had been completely burned away and collapsed into the fourth floor of the building,” he said.

“Much of the fourth floor has also been collapsed. So what we have is a situation with masonry walls that have very little lateral support — there's nothing to keep them from falling in or out, and that creates a very unsafe condition.”

The hotel is managed by Atira Property Management and owned by Peter Plett, who will have to cover costs of the demolition.

Schwebs said the city arranged for demolition because Plett couldn’t meet the city’s deadline to have the building knocked down by the end of the week.

“He doesn't have the connections to a demolition contractor, so it would have taken much longer for him to have gotten this work done,” Schwebs said.

“So we're just stepping forward to make sure we get things returned to safe condition and normal as quickly as possible.”

Sprinkler system

Janice Abbott, the CEO of Atira, said all 71 tenants of the Winters have been accounted for and secured housing. Tenants in the adjacent Atira-run Gastown Hotel, who were forced to evacuate, have also been relocated to other accommodation.

The fire spread despite efforts of a hotel staff member and tenant to extinguish the flames in a second-floor room.

Abbott said the hotel was equipped with a sprinkler system but it had not been re-set after it was activated by a small fire that broke out four days prior to the April 11 blaze.

“The sprinkler system has to be re-set by a licensed fitter, and a call went out to have the sprinkler re-set, and it just hadn't been done yet,” said Abbott, who praised those who attempted to extinguish the flames.

“They tried to fight it but went through a couple of fire extinguishers and realized that it was too big. Then they had to pivot their responsibility to getting people out of the building.”

Damage to the adjacent Gastown Hotel was related to broken windows and smoke.

"We have no reason to believe that people won't be able to go back to the Gastown [hotel]," Abbott said. "That might change, but at this point, we have no information that suggests they won't be able to."

'Abundance of caution'

Meanwhile, owners of six businesses that occupy the ground floor of the building have not been allowed to access their storefronts.

An engineer had inspected the Winters Tuesday and was going to provide an assessment for Schwebs to determine whether owners could have access before demolition begins.

“I've denied access to those spaces out of an abundance of caution for public safety,” he said.

“We've heard their concerns and their desire to get back into their spaces…once we get the results of [the engineer’s] assessments, we'll be communicating that result directly with the store owners.”

Businesses located on the ground floor of the Winters building include Bruce Eyewear Inc, Lemongrass House, Nika Design, and The Flying Pig. 

Demolition crews will use an excavator to knock down the building. Some buildings in the area can expect power outages this week. Abbott Street is closed between Water Street and Blood Alley.

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