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Stranded Rosario Gardens residents thank law firm, four years after tragedy struck in Richmond

Four years ago today was a quiet Friday afternoon, much like any other for the 200 or so residents at Rosario Gardens, an ordinary-looking 15-storey apartment building in Richmond city centre. At around 4:10 p.m.
A shocked Rosario Gardens resident looks on in disbelief at the devastation caused to her apartment, moments after the small plane slammed into the building

Four years ago today was a quiet Friday afternoon, much like any other for the 200 or so residents at Rosario Gardens, an ordinary-looking 15-storey apartment building in Richmond city centre.

At around 4:10 p.m. their peace was violently shattered when a twin-engine Piper Seneca plane, piloted by 82-year-old Peter Garrison, slammed into the north face of the building.

Garrison, of Maple Ridge, died at the scene, while two residents who were inside the ninth-floor apartment at 8297 Saba Rd. penetrated by the plane were taken to hospital with serious, but non-life threatening injuries.

The plane hit the building less than 10 minutes after leaving YVR. Miraculously, it did not explode on impact.

Instead, pieces of the plane dropped onto a parkade rooftop - the plane's fuselage, along with the pilot - remaining lodged inside the apartment.

"I was lucky, because I was downtown at the time the plane hit," said former Rosario resident Marina Lai.

"A friend was watching on TV and called to ask if I was OK. I had no idea what had happened until I got back to Richmond."

The building was so badly damaged that many residents, including Lai, couldn't move back into their apartments for up to four months and two units were uninhabitable for a year.

During that period the residents had to find temporary accommodations elsewhere.

Many of them were compensated for their losses through their insurance.

However, 23 - mostly new immigrants to Canada - had no insurance and were left high and dry.

That was until a law firm that specializes in aviation law, Vancouver-based CFM, stepped up and offered to represent the 23 residents for free.

Just a couple of months ago, the last of the Rosario Gardens' cases was settled out of court. All the residents were able to secure compensation from the pilot's insurance company.

And, with the fourth-year anniversary of the crash in mind, a delegation representing the 23 residents walked into CFM's office and made a special thank-you presentation.

"I was living out of a suitcase for two months and none of us knew where to turn," Lai said.

"When my case was closed, it was such a relief, such a weight off my shoulders, we can't thank the lawyers enough."

Lai was in the process of trying to sell her apartment when the crash happened, but the buyer backed out after the tragedy.

She couldn't put it back on the market for another two years, so was eventually compensated thanks to help from CFM.

Rosario's strata council president, Eddie Chu, made the presentation Monday of a basket of fruit and plaque to CFM partner Joe Fiorante.

The accompanying card, signed by the residents, read, "We were left in a situation, nobody cared. (Out) of it came your light which glared, you led us out from the black, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts."

Looking back to the days and weeks after the crash and the subsequent displacement, no one knew what to do next, Chu said.

"Nobody cared and we needed help," he said.

That help eventually arrived in the shape of CFM, which decided to make a "community service project" out of the 23 residents' plight.

The law firm was first contacted not long after the incident by then Richmond MP Raymond Chan, who asked CFM partner Joe Fiorante to sit in on a town hall meeting between the residents and the Transportation Safety Board about how the crash investigation would proceed.

"(Chan) wanted me to come along and answer questions with regard to any legal situations," said Fiorante.

"I then met Eddie (Chu) and we decided to take on a kind of community service project for our younger lawyers.

"We brought the claims through the small claims court. Primarily, the defendant was the insurer of the pilot."

Fiorante said his team managed to get compensation for things like loss of personal effects and lost rent and for the inconvenience of being displaced.

"There wasn't a lot of money involved, though, and they've all signed confidentiality agreements, so we can't speak about the figures," he added.

"A lot of the residents were new to Canada and really had no clue about the system. So it was a good experience for our staff as well.

"It was such a strange accident that it kind of called out for them to be helped."

Their claims were simply not large enough for them to hire lawyers, Fiorante said.

"We felt it was just something we should do."

Two years after the accident, the Transportation Safety Board issued a report that cited "pre-existing medical" conditions that may have caused Garrison to lose consciousness and crash his plane.

The report stated Garrison had had three prior crashes, and had diabetes and hypertension.

With files from Nelson Bennett