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'I have lost everything,' says father of woman missing after Old Montreal fire

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2023-03-21 Isaac Olson, Joe Bongiorno

Last week, An Wu attended a conference in Montreal and decided to stay an extra day to tour the city.

Wu rented an Airbnb unit in Old Montreal, and the last time her loved ones heard from her was on Wednesday night, according to her friend, Pantong Yao.

"We cannot find her," Yao told CBC News in a video call.

And Yao is not alone. Zafar Mahmood, speaking to CBC news from Pakistan, said his daughter, Dania Zafar, is missing as well.

"She has been very close to me. For me, this is the end of the world. I have lost everything."

Wu and Zafar are among those missing after a fire ripped through a heritage building in Old Montreal early Thursday morning.

The fire started around 5:30 a.m. Witnesses reported a horrific scene, with people calling for help from windows, and at least one person leaping from the burning building, located near the corner of Place d'Youville and St-Nicolas Street.

 

Nine people, three of whom had serious injuries, were transported to the hospital. The body of one unidentified woman was recovered Sunday from the rubble of the multi-unit building. As of Tuesday, six others are still missing.

Montreal fire operations chief Martin Guilbault said at a news conference Tuesday morning that crews have been unable to enter the building due to the risk of collapse. He said teams were continuing to scan the site from a safe distance.

Insp. David Shane of the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM)  said identifying the bodies will be a "long process," in part because victims need to be identified through at least one scientific method, such as dental records or DNA.

"We will not be able to give names very fast, but we cannot make a mistake," said Shane, who recognized the wait could feel "unbearable" for family members.

Led by Quebec coroner Géhane Kamel, the province's coroner's office will also be involved in the investigation and the identification of victims.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante has called on the Quebec government and Airbnb to work more closely with the municipality to crack down on illegal short-term rentals. Meanwhile, victims' families are left with questions.

Questions about building safety

Jill Zhu said Wu's family has asked Airbnb to provide more information about the rental agreement and the listing. Airbnb told the family that the information will instead be provided only to police, Zhu said.

She said they are wondering if there were proper windows in each unit, carbon monoxide detectors, a safe evacuation route and a working fire alarm that could have woken sleeping guests before the flames consumed the building.

Wu is a Chinese national who has been living and studying in the United States, completing her postdoctoral training in neuroscience, Yao said. Her friends and family have been doing everything they can to find her, holding onto a fading hope that she is still alive.

"At the very beginning, we thought she was missing. So we reached out to local people to ask them to help us find her," said Yao.

Someone even went from hospital to hospital in Montreal checking, but "it's hopeless," he said.

Wu's friend Shijia Liu said Wu would often spend 18 hours a day in the lab, dedicated to her research.

"She is regarded as a child prodigy, and regarded as a really good role model for her whole family — for her whole extended family," said Liu.

The struggle of not knowing

Mahmood said Dania arrived in Montreal last Wednesday as a quick overnight getaway with her childhood friend. He spoke to her that very night.

"She showed us the hotel. She said it's quite good and there was a window," said Mahmood, adding Dania chose the Old Montreal building for its history and artistic inspiration.

She was supposed to stay one night in an Airbnb and return to her home in Toronto the next day, but she never made the trip back.

The Mahmood family began to worry when Dania, 32, wasn't answering her phone. They had a friend check her Toronto apartment, but she wasn't there. Finally, the family decided to file a missing person's report and that's when a Montreal detective got in touch with them.

"I think she was at the wrong place at the wrong time with all the odds against her," said Mahmood.

An Wu's friends and family see she is among those missing after a fire ripped through a building in Old Montreal Thursday morning. © Submitted by Pantong Yao An Wu's friends and family see she is among those missing after a fire ripped through a building in Old Montreal Thursday morning.

Mahmood describes his daughter as a free spirit — an independent person fulfilling her dreams. She had started applying for Canadian citizenship.

"She was so friendly. Whoever meets her, they remember her for ages, forever. She loves cats. She loves greenery. She loves plants," he said.

Mahmood says he wants answers and more transparency, questioning why his daughter hasn't been found yet.

"She was residing on the third storey," he said. "She should have been recovered by now."

On Monday, Montreal police described a long and meticulous task ahead as crews worked to dismantle the second and third floors of the building. Police still have not named the victims, or said who is missing. The building's roof caved in, and heavy machinery was brought in to help police, firefighters and forensic investigators sift through the building.

"It will be extremely difficult to work in these conditions," said Montreal police Chief Fady Dagher, noting it's too early to say how the fire started.

Cranes, bucket loaders and other heavy machinery were brought in to search the debris for victims on Monday. © Charles Contant/CBC Cranes, bucket loaders and other heavy machinery were brought in to search the debris for victims on Monday.

Still Mahmood said he is frustrated by the lack of information. At this point, it's not clear if she is getting medical treatment somewhere or if her remains need to be identified.

"We need a decent burial. We need to say a decent goodbye to her," he said.

"I need to find my daughter. What happened to her? Why weren't precautions taken? What went wrong? Who's responsible?"

Other families should be spared the suffering of not knowing, he said, but the Mahmoods are still holding out hope that Dania is still alive.

 

'Every day, we used to talk'

Dania was in Montreal with her friend, Saniya Mazhar Khan, 31, who was visiting from Detroit.

The two met in Pakistan when they were around 10, according to Saniya's father, Mazhar Khan.

They were working on a novel together and shared many things in common, said Khan.

"They were very modest, and following their religion," he said. "They were very polite. Both of them."

Khan said part of his heart is gone. He said she was pursuing a master's degree in public health in Detroit.

"Every day, we used to talk," he said. "She would not hide anything from me. She would share her issues and her goals and everything."

Khan recalled the photos she would send, and conversations they would have driving to and from school.

"She was always sharing with us all of her joys," said Khan. "Especially to her mother, she would talk."

Khan came to Montreal as soon as he heard about the fire, saw the rubble and went back home to attend to his family because, he explained, it was clear his daughter had been buried in the collapsed structure.

He is returning to Montreal this week, determined not to leave the city without her.

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