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'She was so beautiful': Search continues for missing after fatal Montreal fire

Firefighters enter the building as they continue the search for victims Tuesday, March 21, 2023, at the scene of last week’s fire that left one person dead and six people missing in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

MONTREAL — Zafar Mahmood was still waiting on Thursday to hear whether his 32-year-old daughter was among the four people whose bodies have been pulled from the rubble of an Old Montreal building that caught fire last week.

Going a week without answers has been hard, Mahmood said in a phone interview from Lahore, Pakistan, as he described his cherished daughter Dania Zafar, who had been staying in the building the night of the fire.

"Whoever met her never forgot her; there was sparkling in her eyes, there was magic in her words," he said. "She was so beautiful; she was so beautiful."

Montreal police announced late Wednesday the discovery of two bodies, bringing the total to four and leaving three people missing after last Thursday's fire. The bodies of the two recently discovered victims were turned over to a pathologist for identification.

Firefighters said Thursday they had brought in a second crane to speed up the removal of debris from the historic stone building that was built in 1890 and — according to police — used for illegal Airbnb rentals. Searchers say there are likely three people still in the rubble.

"The plan is to have both cranes lowered into the building," Martin Guilbault, a Montreal fire operations chief, told reporters. "The plan is to take debris and put it on the second crane to be faster on the removal of the debris." 

Officials have so far identified one victim: 76-year-old Camille Maheux, a photographer. Maheux’s older brother, Benoît, said he learned about the fire, and that his sister was among the missing people, from the news. 

“One of my other sisters also told me that probably our sister Camille was in that fire. She lived in that building for at least 30 years,” Maheux said. “I am really saddened by what happened. But unfortunately, there is nothing to do.”

Benoît Maheux's wife, Lorraine Doyon, described her sister-in-law as very intelligent and curious. “She was able to talk about so many different subjects. She was an avid reader," she said. 

"It’s very sad. We were very shocked to hear the news. My God. To die by fire … it’s horrible."

Maheux earned a master’s degree in education technology from Université de Montréal and later studied at INSAS, an arts and theatre school in Brussels. The National Gallery of Canada features 61 of Maheux’s photographs on its website, and her photos have been exhibited in Canada, Brazil, France and Italy. She also produced short films.

Mahmood said his daughter was in Montreal with her childhood friend Saniya Khan, 31 — who is also missing — for a brief holiday, adding that he spoke to both of them the day before the blaze.

"They were quite happy, they enjoyed the visit of the city," he said, adding that the two were planning on staying in Montreal overnight and travelling back to Toronto the next day. "But they never could make the trip back."

He described his daughter, who was self-employed and working in publishing in Toronto, as a free spirit, and a passionate and ambitious woman. He said she had a love of art, books and heritage. She was also in the process of getting Canadian citizenship, he said.

Mahmood said he has a lot of questions about why local officials didn't better monitor the city's short-term housing sector, adding that he thought the recovery process to find those missing was taking long. "The most important thing should be to recover the bodies first," he said.

In the wake of the fire, politicians in Quebec have criticized Airbnb, which operates an online marketplace for short-term rentals, for being a bad corporate citizen. Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante told reporters earlier this week that the company should be ensuring that people listing their properties on the website have proper permits. In 2018, Airbnb-style short-term rentals were made illegal in the area where the building that caught fire is located.

On Thursday, two representatives of Airbnb met in Quebec City with Tourism Minister Caroline Proulx, who has vowed to tighten the laws governing short-term rentals. The two Airbnb employees — Nathan Rotman and Camille Boulais-Pretty — left the meeting without speaking to reporters. 

Other people missing since the fire include An Wu, 31, a neuroscientist doing post-doctoral work at the University of California San Diego, who was in Montreal for a conference. Takaki Komiyama, her colleague at the university's Komiyama Lab, issued a statement on Thursday calling her "creative, fearless, and forward-thinking, with a constant desire to learn."

"Our hearts are broken with the possibility of our worst fear becoming reality. Our thoughts are with An, An’s family and friends. We are grateful for the overwhelming flow of kindness that we have received in the past few days, during our extremely difficult and uncertain time," he wrote.

Another person who has been identified as missing is Charlie Lacroix, an 18-year-old from the Montreal suburb of Terrebonne. She had rented a unit in the building on Airbnb with a friend, and Lacroix's father said his daughter told 911 operators that she was trapped in a unit with no fire escape or windows.

Authorities have not confirmed how many of the missing people were tourists but said they were from Quebec, Ontario and the United States.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2023. 

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Sidhartha Banerjee and Marisela Amador, The Canadian Press

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