Fire marshal says King Street fire may be arson

A fire that destroyed a stretch of century-old downtown homes and left 24 homeless may have been deliberate, the Ontario Fire Marshal said Sunday.

Investigator Greg Olson has “some good ideas” about what happened in the basement at 405 King St. E. on Friday, after crews demolished the building this weekend.

“As far as the cause (of the fire), it’s still under investigation,” Olson said Sunday. They are investigating multiple scenarios and “one, of course, is a set fire.”

During their search of the house on Friday, firefighters discovered a “squatter” curled up in the bathtub of the basement unit where the fire started. He was rushed to hospital to be treated for severe smoke inhalation.

He remained in critical condition Sunday, said Hamilton fire safety officer Dave Christopher.

Building owner Rudy Oster, 81, said the homeless man is a former tenant who had broken in multiple times over the past couple of years — including just days before the fire.

“I told him to get out,” Oster said Sunday.

Oster dug through the pile of rubble Sunday afternoon to salvage what he could from his 40-year-old coin business, Beaver Coins Stamps and Antiques. It was not insured, he said, because “it would cost more than I take in.”

The building has three upper apartments plus one in the basement, but only one — an upstairs unit — was being rented, Oster said.

Jennifer Hill is the tenant who lived above the coin shop. She watched from across the street Saturday as a bulldozer cut through the charred remnants of her home.

She awoke to a room full of smoke Friday morning, around 1:30 a.m., and fled with just the clothes on her back. She’s lost everything — her furniture, wallet and clothes — as well as her dad’s medals from the Korean War and family photos.

Hill says there were no working smoke alarms in her unit.

She was also taken to hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation, but was released. She and 23 neighbours were put up at the Crowne Plaza Hotel for the weekend.

The fire also ripped through a stretch of attached homes on either side of 405 King E. The multiplex was originally built with firewalls, but renovations over the years broke down those barriers, allowing flames to spread across the attics of the homes, Christopher said Friday.

Olson said all the owners carried insurance on the five properties. He could not say if all tenants had insurance.

The Red Cross provided the fire victims from all five buildings with 72 hours of accommodations at the Crowne Plaza, as well as food and clothing. But come checkout time on Monday at 11 a.m., they will have to find somewhere else to stay.

Olson estimates damages are around $2 million — with attached homes on either side of 405 “not at all” livable due to the effects of fire and water.

The stretch was expected to be fenced off late Sunday night, with King Street at Victoria Avenue expected to partially reopen Monday morning.

HOW TO HELP THE VICTIMS

    Financial donations can be made to the Red Cross at 400 King St. E., Hamilton, or 279 Dundas St. E., Waterdown.

    Other donations can be dropped off after 1 p.m. at Hamilton Fitness, 162 Parkdale Ave., through Bonner Villabroza, president and CEO of the Hamilton Filipino Community Centre. For more information, call 905-297-5364.

mhayes@thespec.com

905-526-3214