A former fire chief is raising questions about how quickly the head fire official in L'Isle-Verte, Que responded to a deadly fire in a seniors' residents that killed 32 people.
A coroner is set to begin a public inquiry next week into the fatal fire that tore through Résidence du Havre just after midnight on Jan. 23.
Robert Kirby, a former fire chief who saw a series of documents obtained by Radio-Canada's investigative program Enquête, says he believes L’Isle-Verte fire Chief Yvan Charron, who was in charge of operations on the night of one of Canada's deadliest fires, acted late in calling for backup.
"If you delay calls for assistance, it's too late," said Kirby, who has trained firefighters across Quebec for 20 years.
Charron said he would respond the same way to the blaze, which broke out on a cold night in January and ultimately left 32 people dead.
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The fire started in the early hours of Jan. 23 at Résidence du Havre, where 54 seniors lived.
At about the same time, Mario Michaud, a man who lived across the street from the residence, also contacted emergency services. According to his testimony, the fire was already raging through the building.
At 12:26 a.m., a first message was sent via pager to about half of the volunteer firefighters in L'Isle-Verte — they are part-time firefighters who sleep at home and not at the fire hall. A few seconds later, the rest of the town's volunteer firefighters were called.
At 12:29 a.m., seven minutes after the first alarm, the 911 dispatch centre got a call that stressed the seriousness of the situation. The call log states: "Another call received for firefighters, fire, smoke inside. Are not able to evacuate."
At 12:32 a.m., the general alarm was triggered and the small town's entire fire department — about 15 firefighters — was called again to the scene.
The fire at Résidence du Havre kept spreading.
Resident Conrad Morin was one of the only two survivors who managed to escape from the old section of the seniors’ home, which was built in 1997 and had no sprinkler system. At the time, a sprinkler system wasn't required in that section of that building.
"I was lying down and at some point I began to cough, and it woke me up," Morin told Enquête. The 89-year-old worked as a fire chief for many years.
"I smelled smoke. I went to the door in the hall but the door was hot. [There was] no way to go out by there. So I turned around. I had no other choice but the balcony."
No firefighter backup
L’Isle-Verte Fire Chief Charron said in a statement given to investigators that he never received the initial fire alarm call. He got in touch with 911’s central dispatch office at 12:31 a.m.
The agent informed Charron that there were big flames and that residents couldn't get out.
Charron went to the scene, without calling for help from firefighters in neighbouring communities.
Kirby said he believes that was a mistake.
"A high-risk building with many human lives, and dispatch tells you 'people are trapped,' you shouldn’t even leave your house before advising dispatch" to bring in backup, he said.
While the fire kept burning at Résidence du Havre, neighbours were calling 911. Some rushed out with ladders to try to save those trapped on their balconies.
At 12:40 a.m., the first pump truck arrived at the scene.
One minute later, Charron called for help from neighbouring fire stations.
The emergency-call registry indicates that Charron requested help from volunteer firefighters in two municipalities — Saint-Eloi and Saint-Paul-de-la-Croix, Que. — and later summoned help from Saint-Arsène.
Then, 85 minutes after the fire first started, firefighters in Trois-Pistoles were called in, and nearly three hours after the building was burning, volunteer firefighters in Cacouna were contacted. Both municipalities are located 20 kilometres from L'Isle-Verte.
Firefighters from those villages were called in to stop the flames from spreading to neighbouring buildings in the villages, because at that point, it was believed it was too late to save lives.
A call was never placed to Rivière-du-Loup, which has the largest fire department in the region and is located 28 kilometres from the seniors' home that was up in flames.
"I wonder about the delay period. These municipalities are just waiting for the call, and they rushed over when they heard about the fire," Kirby said.
Charron said calling for backup earlier would not have changed anything.
Chief defends his actions
While waiting for neighbouring firefighters to arrive, the fire kept growing, according to firefighter Jean-Guy Côté, who was at the scene that night.
"I did not see any light. There was a lot of smoke already on the second floor, and I could not see the third floor. The fire was the length of the building. Visibility was zero, the building was not accessible. I got people out on chairs over the fence," Côté said.
The documents also indicate that Fire Chief Charron entered the burning building, to try to save people in the lobby area, with no breathing apparatus.
It was something he should not have done, according to Kirby.
"If he goes inside and is affected by the smoke and he falls into the corridor, who will direct the operations? Also, from the outside, you have a complete picture of what is happening. In the corridor, in the smoke, you have no idea," Kirby said.
As for entering the building without a breathing apparatus, he said it was the right decision at the time.
"If you have a car accident, are you going to wait to save your wife? If I had to start over again, I would do the same thing," Charron said.
Call logs show that by 5 a.m. the fire was stabilized, but not yet under control.