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Rights + Justice

Pregnant, and Trapped in a Burning Apartment Building

After a terrifying escape, Ayesha Tabassum says she wishes she had known about her landlord’s history with fires.

Jen St. Denis 1 Sep 2023The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

When Ayesha Tabassum heard her building’s fire alarm go off July 27, she grabbed some important documents, then opened the door of her apartment in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood.

But thick black clouds of smoke had already filled the hallway, making it difficult to breathe, and Tabassum couldn’t even see across the hall. She slammed the door and sought refuge on her third-floor balcony. Behind her, flames had started to enter her apartment.

“I was crying and begging for help, but neighbours couldn’t help,” Tabassum, who is seven months pregnant, told The Tyee. She was alone at the time of the fire because her husband, Khursheed Ali Syed, was out working as a food deliverer. Tabassum, 27, arrived in Vancouver in January to join Syed as the couple try to make a new life in Canada.

“I was scared something had happened to my baby.”

Tabassum waited a terrifying 15 minutes for firefighters to arrive. Then, firefighters had to break down a fence to be able to set up an 11-metre ladder before Tabassum could be helped down from her balcony.

Today, Tabassum and Syed have moved to an apartment in Surrey, a home that is mostly empty because the couple lost everything in the fire.

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Khursheed Ali Syed and Ayesha Tabassum in their new home in Surrey. Their apartment is still mostly empty of furniture because the couple lost all their possessions in a fire on July 27. Photo by Jen St. Denis.

Tabassum and Syed are among 70 people who were displaced when the three-storey apartment building on East 10th Avenue was gutted by fire on July 27.

Many of those residents are now calling attention to their landlord’s history with fire safety: Fu Ren, who also uses the name Henry, is currently facing 20 counts of fire safety bylaw violations in provincial court. In 2022, Ren was found guilty of five fire safety violations and was fined $500.

Ren and his wife, Feng Yan, also owned an apartment building in Burnaby that had two serious fires: one in 2009 caused the death of one tenant, while another in 2013 led to the building being demolished. Today, the Burnaby property is a vacant lot and is still owned by Ren and Yan. Ren has previously told The Tyee that the 2009 fire was accidentally started by a cigarette left on a couch in the lobby, while the 2013 fire was “outside of the control of the owner.”

Ren did not respond to questions sent to him for this story, but he has previously told The Tyee he has evidence to fight the current bylaw charges he is facing in provincial court.

During a court appearance on Aug. 15, a lawyer for the City of Vancouver asked for a two-week extension so she could review evidence Ren recently sent to her office. The judge warned Ren to keep the proceedings moving, saying it has already been 270 days since the November inspection that led to the charges.

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Tenants of 414 E. 10th Ave. gathered at a provincial court appearance for their landlords, Fu Ren and Feng Yan. The building owners have been charged with 20 counts of fire safety bylaw violations from a Nov. 17, 2022, building inspection, but say they have evidence to fight the charges. Photo by Jen St. Denis.

Tabassum said she wished she had known about the previous fires at the Burnaby building owned by their landlord.

“If we had known, we wouldn’t have lived there,” she said, adding that the building was poorly maintained and infested with rats.

While tenants in Vancouver can look up current building problems on the city’s rental standards database, Ren and Yan’s ownership of the Burnaby property did not show up on B.C.’s Land Ownership Transparency Registry. After the Mount Pleasant fire, The Tyee learned of the Burnaby fires through a tip, then confirmed the information by checking land title records and mortgage documents.

The Tyee made a freedom of information request for the investigation report for the fire at 414 E. 10th Avenue in Vancouver. The report confirms that the cause of the fire was accidental, started when a tenant who is “a self-proclaimed hoarder” left a candle burning in his suite, which was filled with paper and wood.

The investigation report details how firefighters battled the intense blaze and evacuated numerous animals and one resident by going door to door inside the burning building. Two other neighbours who were trapped on their balcony with their dog also had to be rescued.

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Firefighters battle the fire at 414 E. 10th Ave. on July 27. Photo via Vancouver Fire Rescue Services.

Photographs collected by fire investigators show the building’s alarm, which residents said they heard going off during the fire. Photos also show fire extinguishers with tags indicating the canisters had been recently serviced. The report notes that the firewall in the building did perform its intended function, containing the fire to the west side of the building. However, by the mid-point of the firefighting effort, “there had been structural collapse on the third floor and the roof… had been burnt through with areas of noticeable collapse.”

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A photograph taken by fire investigators shows the extent of damage to the third floor of the Mount Pleasant apartment building. Photo via Vancouver Fire Rescue Services.

The building had sprinklers in the parkade, but not on the residential floors.

The 20 bylaw charges Ren and Yan are now facing resulted from a Nov. 17 building inspection that found problems with many aspects of the fire safety systems in the building, from missing fire extinguishers to blocked exits to inoperable emergency lighting.

The city is alleging interior fire doors didn’t close properly and the parkade sprinkler system was not being effectively maintained. City inspectors found an unrepaired hole in the first floor hallway ceiling that could have led to fire spreading more quickly throughout the building.

Vancouver Fire Rescue Services said they could not comment on the November inspection because of the court case. But information officer Matthew Trudeau did confirm that after inspectors identify safety violations, fire prevention inspectors do more inspections and keep communicating with the building owner “to see if any changes have occurred at the building.”

Maggie Garner, another tenant who also lost her home in the fire, said she had previously reported fire safety issues to the city in October 2021. At that time, Garner said, she had noticed that Ren had installed brackets on one of the building’s exit door so it couldn’t be opened from inside the building. According to Garner, that door remained locked overnight until Garner reported it to the city the next day.

Ren did not respond to The Tyee’s questions about the incident.

Garner said she also complained about people who didn’t live in the building frequently staying in the hallways or stairwell, as well as issues like a missing handrail from the fire escape.

“I reported him to the city several times,” said Garner, who works as a restaurant server in Vancouver.

Now searching for another apartment in Vancouver — a city with some of the highest rents in Canada — Garner said she remembers why she continued to live in the Mount Pleasant building, despite the many problems.

“Being back on the rental market now, that's why we stayed,” she said. “It's terrifying out here.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Housing

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