Prior to going up in flames, Old Montreal building was considered 'fire trap' by worried renters

People who stayed at the building where a fire broke out last week in Old Montreal say they had safety concerns. “I have to imagine everyone living there thought at some point, 'man, if there’s a fire, I’m a goner,'” one former tenant said.

Former tenants say owner Emile Benamor allowed operation of illegal Airbnbs, despite denials

A firefighter, a crane and the burned out building
Firefighters are seen searching the building where a fire broke out last Thursday, leaving destruction and tragedy in its wake. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

One of the first things that struck Joseph Brockman about the Airbnb where he was staying in Montreal were the windows — there were, in fact, none. 

"I literally said to my friend, 'this is a freaking fire trap,'" he recalled. 

Brockman and a friend spent a weekend in the small apartment in August 2022.

The apartment had a single exit, the front door, and the air conditioning unit pumped air into the building's hallway, he said.

"I thought it was maybe just the old — you know, the fact that it's a heritage building. But I was saying, like there's no way this place can be legal."

The owner of the building, Emile Benamor, has said through his lawyer that the building was up to code. The lawyer, Alexandre Bergevin, told CBC News that only one unit had no windows.

The building erupted in flames last Thursday. Four people have been recovered from the rubble at 135 Du Port Ave. At least three more are still missing.

One of those people, 18-year-old Charlie Lacroix, had called 911 from inside the building as the fire raged, stuck in a unit with no windows. 

She told police, "come and get us because there are no windows where we are, we can't get out and the fire is burning," according to her grandfather, Robert Lacas.

At least one window is mandatory in an apartment, according to the Régie du bâtiment, the province's building authority.

'If there's a fire, I'm a goner'

In addition to Brockman, three former tenants also told CBC News they had safety concerns about the building before it went up in flames. 

Buster Fraum, who last lived in the building in 2021, said it was clear to them and others who lived there that it was vulnerable to fire. 

On the outside, the building was well maintained but inside, there was no smoke detector in their unit at the time, Fraum said. (Bergevin says every apartment in the building had a smoke detector.)

Both Fraum and Brockman said there were no emergency exit signs in the halls. 

"I have to imagine everyone living there thought at some point, 'man, if there's a fire, I'm a goner,'" said Fraum, who uses the pronoun they. 

"The building was so clearly back in time."

Fraum said they spoke with an official at the Ville-Marie borough to express their concern about a lack of smoke detectors in some units and other fire hazards, but was told the complaint could not be filed because they no longer lived there.

"I tried to raise the alarm and it wasn't heard," they said.

"I always had this sense that if someone looked into something, they would see everything."

The city of Montreal did not answer questions about how they conduct inspections or whether specific concerns had been flagged about this building.

A spokesperson said CBC could file an access-to-information request.

WATCH | Aerial video shows aftermath of deadly fire in Old Montreal:

Aerial video shows aftermath of deadly fire in Old Montreal

6 months ago
Duration 0:48
Drone footage shows an aerial view of the fire that ravaged a historic building in Old Montreal.

Illegal Airbnbs were no secret

Catherine Joyal lived in the basement of the building with her partner for three years starting in 2009 — the year Benamor bought the building, records show. 

"Once you went inside, it was a bit of a labyrinth," she said, echoing the comments of other tenants who said there was no clear escape route in the event of a fire. 

Caitlyn Campbell, who lived there for three years between 2018 and 2021, said she was drawn to the building because it was historic but found it was poorly maintained.

She said there was only one exit from the building and she installed her own smoke detector because she didn't trust the one in place.

The building is listed as having 15 units and a number of those were rented out full time as Airbnbs, which are illegal in Old Montreal. 

Bergevin blamed the Airbnb operation on a tenant, Tariq Hasan, and said Benamor tried to put an end to the practice.

But three people familiar with the situation, including Fraum, say Benamor was aware of the Airbnbs and wasn't trying to stop them from being rented out. 

"They existed and they weren't a secret," Fraum said.

Hasan declined to comment when reached by phone earlier this week. He later referred CBC News to a lawyer, who declined to answer questions on his behalf.

Airbnb did not respond to specific questions about whether it had received complaints about the places for rent at 135 Du Port Ave.

"We are in contact with the mayor's office and the provincial government, and are giving our continued support to law enforcement, as investigations take place into what happened," the company said in a statement.

On Friday, Airbnb announced it would be taking down Airbnb listings that did not have the proper permits.

Firefighters in front of building
Investigators and firefighters are shown at the scene following a fire in Old Montreal, Saturday, March 18, 2023, that gutted the heritage building. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Trouble in other buildings

Benamor owns at least 10 buildings in Montreal, according to public records. His name comes up in dozens of disputes with the province's rental board. 

Tenants at another one of his buildings, on St-Antoine Street in Westmount, have complained about unacceptable living conditions, as first reported in the Montreal Gazette

A spokesperson for Westmount confirmed to CBC News that the city has intervened and "legal proceedings are currently underway" in connection with that building.

Paul Duey, a Montreal building inspector, reviewed photos of the apartment where Brockman stayed in Old Montreal

He said the lack of windows and exposed wiring were both red flags.

WATCH | How to find out if your Montreal Airbnb is illegal:

How to find out if your Montreal Airbnb is illegal

6 months ago
Duration 2:35
Where do you start if you want to know if your short-term rental is legal and safe?

He added: "I've done thousands and thousands of inspections and I've never seen a unit in an apartment [building] without a window, so that is definitely odd in itself."

Another person who was staying in the building on the night of the fire said she managed to escape by breaking a window. 

Alina Kuzmina said neither fire alarm in her unit went off, and that she and her spouse woke to the sound of "crackling fire."

"This is very much nightmare material, so my frustration is with how this building is managed," said Kuzmina.


Benjamin Shingler is a senior writer based in Montreal, covering climate change, health and social issues. He previously worked at The Canadian Press and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.

With files Leah Hendry and Gillian Kirkland