Caretaker missing after downtown Victoria hotel blaze
A man is missing after a vacant downtown Victoria hotel was devastated by fire Monday morning.
Mike Draeger, a caretaker at the former Plaza Hotel building, was still missing in the aftermath of the fire Monday evening.
Victoria police are asking anyone who has seen Draeger to contact police immediately to ensure his well-being.
Firefighters were called to the Plaza Hotel on Government Street just before 5:30 a.m. and arrived to a fully involved fire. Officials said alarms at neighbouring properties went off, but not inside the vacant hotel.
Heavy dark smoke could been seen billowing from windows of the hotel, the former home of Monty's Exotic Showroom Pub. The streets around the hotel were closed to traffic by emergency officials but large crowds of onlookers had gathered to watch the blaze.
Rescue crews performed a full sweep of the building and didn't believe anyone was inside at the time.
Victoria fire Chief Paul Bruce later said the caretaker, who is known to stay in the abandoned building was unaccounted for, but could not speculate on whether he was inside the building when the fire broke out.
Owners of the property confirmed they had not heard from Draeger and were en route to Victoria.
"We're concerned for the property manager and any other people who're part of the neighbouring bulidings and part of the community," said Nick Askew of Ocean Gate Developments, which owns the building.
A maintenance worker at the Royal Victoria Suites, an eight-unit hotel adjacent to the Plaza building, said he came to the scene at 6 a.m. to check on guests and to search for Draeger.
"Nobody's seen Mike yet," said James Middleton. "That's why I came down."
Draeger lives in the back of the Plaza building, he said. Middleton last saw him yesterday.
"I'm worried about him... I'm not sure that he's made it out," he said.
"If he's not among these people watching then I don’t know where he would be."
Asked whether asbestos was inside the historic building, Bruce said there was "no active record to determine whether asbestos is or isn't there."
Bruce said it's too soon to say whether the fire is considered suspicious, but signs point to it being helped along somehow.
"I'd hate to speculate on what the cause was but the fact is it was quite a significant fire to evolve that quickly, certainly leads us to think that there could've been some assistance," he said.
Investigators haven't pinpointed where the blaze was sparked, but said crews first discovered flames in the basement of the building with heavy smoke conditions on all floors.
At one point, part of the building collapsed as flames shot through the roof.
At 10:30 a.m., deputy fire Chief Dan Atkinson said there were no reports of anyone suffering injuries and that the blaze was mostly contained.
"As it stands right now we've got the building sort of where we want it," he said. "This has been a successful operation as far as I'm concerned... All the buildings to the south have been saved, and it looks like there's going to be no fire damage there."
The department deployed three aerial trucks, a rescue truck and a battalion, as well as three command officers. At its peak, 34 firefighters were actively battling the blaze.
"A fire of this scope is going to continue to burn for a long period of time," said Atkinson. "We're putting out hot spots, making sure it doesn't spread."
He said given the amount of damage the building sustained, fire investigators wouldn't be able to get inside to continue their investigation.
The Royal Victoria Suites was evacuated by the fire department after alarms went off. Every guest in the eight occupied suites was accounted for, though some just left with passports and clothes.
Tieca, an American tourist at the hotel who asked CTV News not to publish her last name, wasn't lucky enough to grab her purse or passport.
She said her family awoke to a hotel fire alarm at approximately 5:10 a.m.
"We grabbed the fire extinguisher real quick because there was one outside the door and just kind of followed the hallways. Unfortunately that's the only way out is through the stairwells to the bottom floor," she said.
"I just grabbed one bag that was by the door and that was it – just hauled out."
"The alarm went off around five o'clock or so, so we scuttled out of the building as quick as possible," said another guest.
The Plaza Hotel has been largely vacant for years.
The City of Victoria warned residents that air quality downtown was poor and advised people to stay away from the area. City Hall was shut down for the day due to the poor air quality and numerous roads would remain closed in the downtown core, officials said.
Centennial Square was closed to the public just after 3 p.m. due to concerns with the ongoing smoke.
The Canadian Coast Guard deployed containment booms around the base of the Johnson Street Bridge to contain any runoff from the Plaza Hotel fire. There was no indication of how much water from the fire was prevented from entering the harbour, or what toxins, if any, it contained.
Smoke could be seen well outside the downtown core and as far away as Port Angeles, Wash.
'My dreams are going up in smoke'
Heidi Sherwood, owner the Sattva Spa inside the Royal Victoria Suites building, watched with fading optimism Monday morning as the flames encroached upon her business.
"I was feeling really optimistic that they would be able to save this building, but just now I can see that fire just started coming out of the elevator shaft, which means that fire has penetrated my building, either from the roof or the wall," she said.
"I feel really shocked. My dreams are going up in smoke right now," she said.
"I've worked really, really hard in this community to build this business. I've worked really hard and it just feels like it's literally going up in smoke today."
Downtown resident B. Woodward, co-owner of the Cherry Bomb Toys store across the alley from the fire, had been at the scene since 6 a.m. Monday.
"We saw smoke basically billowing out of the front corner, then the side of the building, then basically a little later they went through the basement and flames started shooting out," he told CTV News.
"There's a lot of smoke everywhere, it's insane. Don’t come down here if you don’t have to because it's not good for the lungs."
By 6:30 p.m., demolition crews were using an excavator to punch large holes in the rear of the building and remove rubble while firefighters continued spraying water into the interior.