Fire and Explosion Rock Montreal
Tragedy focusses attention on inadequate fire and building codes
FIRE and a mysterious explosion swept the Queen Alexandra apartment building in Montreal November 9, resulting in a loss of 16 lives and bringing the city’s by-laws under fire. The three-alarm blaze which broke out in the early hours of Sunday morning, mushroomed with great rapidity through the much remodelled old structure on downtown Oldfield Avenue to hopelessly trap its victims within a few minutes of its discovery. Cause of the fire has not been established, but almost immediately after discovery an explosion said to have occurred on the second floor, carried flames through narrow hallways to involve the whole building.
Fire was bursting through windows before an alarm was sent in at 1:52 a.m. from the scene. The first alarm was received from a box some blocks away. Since this was below the hillside location and across a railway line, the first-due companies were taken out of the area and eventually had to proceed by a circuitous route to the location. The delayed response was, however, not likely an important factor in the life loss, in view of the speed of the fire and the building’s flimsy internal construction.
Numerous stories were told of the occupants who were forced to jump from upper floors or threw children down. Some were saved by bystanders using ladders which happened to be on a truck parked nearby. Confusion was general and probably resulted in a delayed alarm.
First result of the fire was a flood of recriminations by civic officials and the press over the adequacy of building and prevention regulations and their enforcement. Mayor Sarto Fournier visited the scene several hours after the fire and declared his intention to inquire into the reason such firetrap construction could exist, J. J. Savignac, chairman of the city executive committee, was quoted as saying it is criminal for proprietors to refuse to make improvements to their properties against fire hazards. He also suggested a publicity campaign on fire prevention. Director of the Montreal Fire Department, Raymond D. Pare, and his fire prevention officer, Chief Inspector James Mclsaac, were later called in by the executive committee in an attempt to establish the reason for building conditions permitting such a fire.
The salient fact brought out was that a modern fire prevention code has been under preparation over a period of ten years. It was not yet ready for enactment, having been held up in legal study much of this time. The responsible committee was ordered to get into action immediately, and promised to present the code by December 1.
The fire building was one of a group of old apartment blocks located on a dead-end street at the edge of a bluff. It adjoined a similar building from which it was separated by a fire wall. The brick structure was 105 x 40 feet, four stories and basement, with unprotected steel beams. It had been remodelled into 35 smaller apartments and had a comparatively transient type of tenant. While exterior fire escapes were provided, inside there were open stairways and combustible fibreboard finish in part. Inspections had been made by the fire department and attempts made to secure adequate fire escape facilities.
Public interest was unusually high in the case of this calamity because of the suggestion that the explosion was caused by natural gas which recently came to Montreal. A series of gas explosions in recent months in various parts of the country has caused some concern. A number of separate investigations have been launched with The Quebec Natural Gas Corporation and the city fire commissioner prominent among these.
A Fire Commissioner’s Court is scheduled, but not expected to produce much evidence on the fire cause. The explosion is believed to have been a so-called “backdraft.” The source of fire was apparently at a location where a small party was going on; none ol the participants survived.
In the past four years, two other multiple-alarm fires occurred in adjoining buildings belonging to this same group. As in the former cases, it was necessary to relay water for some of the fire streams due to the awkward dead-end street location. Fire operations were under the direction of First Assistant Director Artnand Durette.
The fire was the worst for life loss in Montreal since the St. Cnnegonde Hospice fire in June 1951, when 35 lives were lost in an orphanage and old people’s home. At that time, the then mayor, Camillien Hondo, expressed the urgency of overhauling the bylaws on fire prevention.