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MONTREAL — Fire officials say at least six people are missing after a blaze destroyed a building in the Montreal’s historic district Thursday.

Investigators initially said one person was believed to be missing in the fire that also injured another nine people.

“The information confirmed in the last few hours, from various sources, allows us to believe that there may be victims inside the debris,” Montreal fire operations chief Martin Guilbault said Saturday. 

More than a dozen emergency responders were still on the scene Saturday where a parameter had been set up and part of the street was blocked off. The smell of smoke was still present in the air. 

A memorial of flowers was also set up in front of the building where people stopped to pay their respect as they wiped away tears.

The cause of the fire remains unknown, Guilbault said, adding that the investigation is being led by the Montreal police arson squad.

Fire officials said two of the nine injured people suffered serious burns and remain in hospital.

Alain Vaillancourt, a member of the city of Montreal’s executive committee responsible for public safety, said that he had spoken to several families with missing loved ones who came to the site of the fire Saturday. 

“(The families) think maybe (they) are in the building,” Vaillancourt said in an interview. “Now, honestly, I am upset by this news. I want to reassure them that we are doing everything in our power so that the investigation progresses quickly.”

During the evacuation of the three-storey building Thursday, six people had to be rescued by ladder.

On Saturday, firefighters were still unable to enter the building that housed an architectural firm and residences. 

“At this time, it is not possible to conduct a safe search in the building, which must first be secured,” Guilbault said. 

“Over the weekend, officials will be working on a response plan to allow our teams to conduct a safe search while trying to preserve the heritage structure,” he said. 

Montreal police arson commander Steve Belzil said that investigators are focused on gathering information from the people who lived in the building. He added that they had already met with the people who were hospitalized. 

“As you know, the site is not accessible for us to start our investigation, so a drone allowed us to go and get images,” Belzil said. 

Belzil was not able to confirm whether the six missing people were tenants of the building or tourists staying in a short-term rental.

“Right now, we’re not talking about arson. It was transferred (to the police) because we have reason to believe that there are victims, deaths,” Belzil explained. 

In total, 130 firefighters responded to the fire to keep it from spreading. 

Montreal fire Chief Richard Liebmann said Thursday there was some confusion over how many people were inside the Old Montreal building at the time of the fire, because several apartments were Airbnb rentals.

Vaillancourt said the city has been cracking down on Airbnb rentals for several years and called it a “problem.”

“In this sector (the site of the fire), it is not legal to have Airbnb rentals, but we will have to wait for the investigation to be over to find out whether that was the case here or not,” he said.  

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 18, 2023.

Helen Moka and Marisela Amador, The Canadian Press