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Three Cubans Die In Consulate Fire

March 30, 1988

MONTREAL (AP) _ A city fire investigator Wednesday said that three Cubans who died battling a blaze at their consulate might have been saved if firefighters hadn’t been kept outside the building for 15 minutes.

Investigator Jacques Plouffe criticized the Cuban Consulate for not informing the fire department of Tuesday’s fire.

″We might have saved three lives,″ he said.

Havana radio, monitored in Miami, identified the dead as Pablo Gonzalez Martinez, 35, an official at the Trade Office; Norma Goderich, 33, wife of a vice-consul; and Jose Perez Salbaluco, 35, a consulate guard.

They died fighting the blaze which apparently started on top floor of the four-story mansion.

The blaze took 100 firefighters more than three hours to bring under control. Its cause was under investigation.

Authorities first learned of the blaze when security guards at a nearby luxury apartment building reported smoke coming from the consulate roof.

Firefighters then rushed to the consulate but were held back for about 15 minutes before they were allowed to enter the building, located on the slopes of Mount Royal.

By the time they got in, the fire was out of control.

″We had a little trouble getting in because there was nobody to answer the door,″ said the district fire chief, Guy Lafortune, who arrived about 7:30 p.m. ″They weren’t expecting us because nobody (at the consulate) had called an alarm and everybody in the building was upstairs fighting the fire.″

Under the 1963 Vienna convention, authorities of the host country, such as police and firefighters, cannot enter consular premises without permission.

Consul-General Lourdes Urrutia only let the firefighters in after she received permission from Cuban officials in Ottawa.

Lafortune said the firefighters were allowed to fight the blaze on condition that they did not enter certain areas of the building.

″Men were stationed at certain doors to keep us away. There was no fire in those areas,″ said Lafortune.

Lafortune said his men had a hard time fighting the flames because every window on the fourth floor was either barred or heavily shuttered and nailed closed.

He said he saw about a dozen guns of various kinds on the walls inside.

Firefighters said it was easier to get into the Cuban consulate than into the nearby Soviet consulate when it caught fire in January 1987. Soviet officials tried to put out that fire with buckets of snow and a garden hose before firefighters were let in.

In 1972, when the Cuban trade commission in the north end was firebombed and one Cuban was killed, Cubans held firefighters and police off with submachine guns.

And in 1954, the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa burned to the ground after officials refused to allow firefighters to fight the fire.

Investigator Plouffe said it took him and his partner Armand Villette about 25 minutes to gain entry to the building Wednesday to retrieve some tools.

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