Victoria police join investigation of suspicious fire at former Plaza Hotel

Victoria police have joined firefighters in an investigation of a suspicious fire that gutted the former Monty’s strip club and Plaza Hotel in downtown Victoria last week.

Police and fire investigators are scouring for clues in the burnt and water-logged debris from the May 6 fire at 603 Pandora Ave., trying to figure out the cause of the fire and what happened to missing live-in caretaker Mike Draeger.

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“Mike is still unaccounted for,” said Const. Matt Rutherford, adding that police are still looking for the missing man. “Unfortunately, as time goes on, our officers are concerned he may have perished in the fire, but we are hopeful that he is out there.”

Police have reviewed surveillance video from numerous buildings, including the building that houses CTV News, said Rutherford.

“In the normal routine course of any investigation that’s serious enough, we would ask all of the businesses to see if they have surveillance footage and review it and see if there’s any evidence in it.”

Police obtained a search warrant on Monday for what could be weeks of investigation.

“We will be there until we can determine along with Victoria Fire what the origin was,” Rutherford said.

Police were waiting until the site was deemed safe before beginning their on-site probe, he said.

Victoria Fire Chief Paul Bruce said last week that the inferno, which burned for at least four days, was suspicious because it was already raging — blowing off a basement back door — when firefighters arrived. That means the fire either accelerated very quickly or had been burning undetected, said Bruce.

A fire alarm and sprinkler system tested as working on both March 21 and April 26 did not appear to have functioned during the fire. The first alarm came from a neighbouring building.

The blaze sent plumes of toxic smoke into the air for days, displaced tenants of an adjacent building, closed Government Street and shut down nearby businesses.

On Tuesday, a backhoe was digging amongst the charred remains — compressed floors of heavy wooden beams, collapsed walls of wood, brick, concrete and plaster, and numerous mattresses and furnishings.

Over the course of the investigation, other equipment will be brought in to lift debris, said Rutherford. “There is a lot of debris obviously, remains from the building.”

He said police will meticulously comb through the rubbish to determine the cause and origin of the fire. “There’s a lot of evidence to potentially collect.”

Only parts of the outer walls of the building are still standing.

Government Street remains closed this week at Pandora as police and fire investigators do their work.

City hall is working with police on a plan to reopen the street as soon as possible, said city spokesman Bill Eisenhauer.

A few businesses, including David’s Tea on Johnson Street, remain closed due to smoke or water damage caused by the fire. The David’s Tea location at Uptown is open. Mountain Equipment Co-op on Government Street re-opened on Monday after being closed for a week.

The west-side sidewalk on Government Street is open to pedestrian traffic, while the east side is only partially opened. City hall re-opened on Friday.

The Victoria Fire Department is also investigating a weekend fire in a former nightclub in the 1300-block of Broad Street.

“There is no information to say that they are connected,” Rutherford said.

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