November 29th, 2011
A terrible tragedy. A rooming house fire resulting in the death of three men.
The fire happened at 2862 Pandora St. last December 22nd. The rooming house was described by Vancouver official as “illegal.”
Nearly a year later, the jury recommended to the B.C. Attorney-General’s office that provincial inspection units should have the authority to issue immediate penalties to landlords through fines or tickets. The jury also recommended it be easier for the government to shut down dangerous rental properties.
The Pandora Street house had been the subject of numerous city inspections after complaints from neighbours that males were urinating in the backyard. It contained broken plumbing, non-working toilets and illegal construction, according to evidence during two days of testimony.
The men’s deaths led to suggestions that the city and owner Choi Leong should be held responsible, as between them they had allowed the house to remain essentially in the same condition as when inspectors swarmed over it in the summer of 2010 looking for anything dangerous enough to get the power cut off.
There were many problems, including unsafe wiring, but inspectors failed to find anything in the electrical system dangerous enough to justify having the premises deemed an imminent risk to safety.
So instead of cutting off power and essentially putting the residents out on the street, the city’s inspection department began the protracted process of seeking a court order to have the rooming home closed, a process that would have likely taken two years.
Leong was ordered by the city to close down the rooming house by Oct. 31st – an empty threat that officials hoped she might accede to. Leong said she gave notice to her tenants, who agreed to leave in the new year.
Someone brought an artificial Christmas tree into the home and placed a set of incandescent bulbs on it (not LED bulbs as formerly reported) using an extension cord to bring power from a wall socket.
However, it became clear any reason to blame either Leong or the city directly for the fire disappeared with the testimony of Vancouver’s chief fire investigator Capt. Ray Bryant.
Bryant said an investigation found no fault with the house wiring in relation to the fire and that an electrical fault had developed either in the extension cord or the lights themselves, causing the tree to ignite and set fire to a nearby mattress.
The three victims had been drinking heavily in the hours before the fire and were not aroused by the smoke and flames. They died of smoke inhalation after being pulled from the home by firefighters who were on the scene within minutes of the alarm.
The inquest also heard that none of the residents had ever complained about their living conditions and city staff said the home – though in poor condition and squalid – was by no means the worst example of such housing in Vancouver. The only time any emotion entered the proceedings was at the end of the testimony of city inspector Pamela Kiselbach, who had dealt extensively with the residents and had recommended court action against Leong.
Asked by coroner Owen Court how she felt upon hearing of the fire and the mens deaths, Kiselbach said she was devastated. “I never thought there would be a fire there. I knew these people. I was their little inspector from city hall,” she said with self-mockery.
“But you’re the first one to ask me about it.”
To read the original story please click here.