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Explosion of e-bike battery caused fire, man's death at Downtown Eastside rooming house: SRO owner

The 32-year-old man's body was located in the alleyway beside the Hotel Empress Saturday morning.
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One person died after a fire at the Empress Hotel SRO on East Hastings in Vancouver on Saturday, June 11, 2022. The incident is under investigation. JASON PAYNE, PNG

VANCOUVER — A man is dead after an e-bicycle battery exploded, potentially causing him to fall from his Downtown Eastside window Saturday morning, according to officials.

Trevor Connelly, deputy chief of Vancouver Fire Rescue Services operations, said a resulting fire ignited around 7 a.m. on the second floor of the Hotel Empress on East Hastings Street.

“The hotel’s sprinkler system did go off, which contained the fire to the room, but the explosion caused damage to the building,” Connelly said.

Twenty-five crew members were sent to tackle the blaze. One of them found the body of the 32-year-old man in the alleyway beside the hotel.

“It looks like the man had been sitting on the room’s window ledge and the resulting explosion caused him to fall,” said Connelly.

Police confirmed two others sustained injuries from the explosion.

The hotel’s owner, Christopher Wall, said that when he arrived at the scene after the incident, building staff told him the tenant may have jumped out of the window.

“However, judging by the broken glass in the alley below, it seems he was forced out of the window by the blast.”

Empress tenants aren’t allowed to store e-bicycles or their batteries in their rooms, Wall said.

“It is very unfortunate, the male tenant had been instructed not to have their e-bike or its battery in their room. He did not heed our advice.”

City engineers confirm the damage to the 76-room single room occupancy hotel wasn’t structural, Wall said. “That means we will be able to bring back tenants on the third floor almost immediately.”

Arrangements to stay at an overnight shelter have been made for 13 second-floor tenants who were displaced by the fire. Hall has plans to use dehumidifiers to address the water damage on the second floor.

“We have repairs booked for first thing Monday morning. Once damage to the room’s wall is fixed, second-floor tenants will be able to move back in.”

Hours after the explosion, Vancouver resident Sherry Hill was worried about the condition of her brother and uncle, who rent rooms at the hotel.

“My mom, who lives close, just went to check on them,” Hill said Saturday afternoon. She later confirmed her uncle was staying in a room next to the one rocked by the explosion.

“My brother is safe at my mom’s now,” she said.

Preliminary investigation evidence shows the e-bicycle battery, thought of as a likely cause for the fire, was charging at the time of its explosion.

As electric cycles have become increasingly popular in North America, concerns have arisen about the fire risk associated with lithium batteries used to charge them. In April, North Vancouver crews were called to extinguish a house fire ignited by the malfunction.

In October, Consumer Reports found that 75 e-bicycle fires ignited in New York last year, causing 72 injuries and three deaths.

The city’s fire department issued a warning on social media: “If using a lithium battery, always use the manufacturer’s cord and power adapter made specifically for the device. If a battery overheats, discontinue use immediately.”