MONTREAL -- Montreal’s mayor vowed Monday to tighten regulation of Airbnb as a search continued for six people missing after a fire swept through a building that included Airbnb units in a historic city section where they are banned.
Firefighters initially thought there was one person missing in the blaze Thursday in the eastern Canadian city. However, reports emerged later of illegal Airbnb units in the more than 130-year-old building, and authorities updated the missing over the weekend to seven, including some from the United States.
Montreal police reported pulling the body of a woman from the rubble Sunday evening.
Montreal police Inspector David Shane said the six who are still missing are from Quebec, Ontario and the U.S., adding that investigators have contacted their families. The fire also injured nine people, including two who were hospitalized.
The cause of the fire is being investigated.
Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said the building included illegal Airbnb units as well as an architect’s office. Plante said Airbnb should have demanded that unit owners provide a permit number from the Quebec provincial government.
“What happened here is a complete tragedy,” Plante said. “Clearly, we would not be in this position if we had been dealing with a company that took its responsibilities seriously and said to these owners ‘You don’t have a certificate, you cannot rent your unit.’” And that would force people who want to act illegally and don’t pay taxes to not escape their responsibilities.”
Plante said she planned to work with the Quebec provincial government to tighten regulations on short-term rentals.
Firefighters have said several apartments in the building were being used as Airbnb rentals, and police they didn’t know how many of the missing were tourists. San Francisco-based Airbnb is “washing its hands” of the problem of illegal rentals in cities across Quebec, Plante said.
Nathan Rotman, Airbnb's regional policy lead for Canada, said in a emailed statement: “We are assisting law enforcement as they investigate. We are also engaged with the mayor’s office."
Alexandre Bergevin, a lawyer for the building’s owner — Emile-Haim Benamor — said on Sunday that Airbnb rentals in the building were not being operated by his client but by tenants, adding that steps had been taken to stop the practice.
Montreal fire operations chief Martin Guilbault said firefighters would begin dismantling the second and third floors of the building Monday.
Shane said the police force’s fire unit used a drone to help locate the body of the woman that was removed Sunday.
“The assumption is that there are six more people inside,” Shane said. “The different steps we’ve taken (suggest) these people who are still missing are probably in the rubble, unfortunately.”
City officials said Airbnb-style, short-term rentals are illegal in the Old Montreal neighborhood where the building is located. The fire took place at the Édifice William-Watson-Ogilvie, built in 1890, the city said.
Bergevin said in a text message Sunday that the alarm system had been replaced in 2019 and was regularly tested.
Shane said no one has been charged in connection with the fire and that the cause remains under investigation.