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Arson trial witness recalls escaping deadly motel fire

Awoken by his dog, David Klein encountered a "wall of flame" when he looked out the window of his room at the Econo Lodge
Fire fighters at the scene of a fatal fire at the Econo Lodge Motel on July 8, 2020.

A man can thank his dog and a quick-acting CBC reporter for escaping a deadly fire that struck a Prince George motel.

David Klein testified Wednesday during a trial for Justin Kyle Aster, accused of setting a blaze on the morning of July 8, 2020 that killed three people staying at the Econo Lodge Motel at the corner of Victoria Street and Ninth Avenue.

Appearing via a video link, the Lethbridge, Alta. resident said he was staying overnight in a ground-level room in the motel's east end. He was asleep when at about 8:45 a.m. he heard a loud bang that woke up both him and his dog.

Klein "just sat there for a minute," but because it was quiet again, he went back to sleep.

About 15 minutes later, Klein's dog was on high alert.

"My dog was on the bed, scratching at me and kind of freaking out," he told the court. "That wasn't normal behaviour for the dog and then I heard glass breaking and a bunch of noise - I actually thought there was a fight or something going on outside."

He opened the curtains to the room's window, which faced west and into a courtyard, and encountered a "solid wall of fire."

Knowing he had to get out, Klein gathered his dog and grabbed his two bags. An amputee - he is missing the lower portion of one leg - Klein relies on crutches to get around.

He stuck to the right and hugged the wall to skirt around the worst of the flames and progressed about 10 metres before he tripped and fell. Klein rolled against the wall and yelled for help.

About a minute later, "somebody grabbed me by my arms and drug me through the flames, out into the open where the fire department was showing up."

That someone turned out to be Faith Fundal. Now the host of CBC Manitoba's afternoon show, at the time of the fire Fundal was a reporter at the CBC station across the street. 

According to an agreed statement of facts read into the court record on Wednesday, Fundal had just finished the morning show when they heard someone yelling fire. Fundal ran across the street and started banging on doors, then came across Klein, who appeared confused and trying to go back into the fire in search of his dog.

As it turned out, his dog was found next to Klein's car across the street.

Klein could not say for certain where the fire had started but upon arriving the day before, he noticed a "large pile of debris, made up of carpet, underlay and all the wood packing that fastens carpets down," underneath the stairwell immediately in front of his room. Klein said it stuck out for him because he does renovations for a living.

The pile was "just all flames," the next morning.

Klein said had to park across the street the night before because a line of taxicabs had formed a line in the motel's parking lot. He said only the cabs driver's got out and nobody got back into the cabs with them upon their return from the motel. 

"That happened two or three times in I would say, probably 25 minutes," Klein said, later adding the activity occurred around 8-8:30 p.m.

"There was two or three cabs pulled up and nobody got out of the cab 

Klein suffered "quite painful" second and third degree burns to various spots on his body with his left hand and wrist getting the worst of it. Klein was taken to hospital in Prince George where he stayed for the next day-and-a-half while a member of Prince George Fire Rescue took care of Klein's dog. Klein also attended the burn units in Calgary and Lethbridge over the following eight weeks.

While they're now subsiding, Klein said he has suffered ongoing nightmares.

"When I fell and I was laying on the ground, I could hear the scream coming from what seemed to be above me, and that's been kind of an ongoing thing," he said, and added he's been seeing a counsellor and "doing my part to get through this."

Klein did not hear any smoke alarms or fire alarms. 

"There was just the noise of the fire," he said. "There was definitely no smoke alarms going off."

In a summary of statements to police, others who were at the motel also did not hear any alarms that morning, although one couple noted that the day before they had to stop cooking on a hotplate because it was setting off the room's smoke detector.

Others also noted the pile of debris beneath the stairs.

Aster faces counts three counts of criminal negligence causing death, one count of arson in relation to an inhabited property and one count of arson damaging property.

The trial and a series of voir dires, or trials within the trial on the admissibility of statements Aster provided to police, continues at the Prince George courthouse.


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