Safety concerns following Quebec landslide

Quebec authorities say they will survey the region where a landslide claimed the lives of a family of four Monday night as residents in the farming community struggled to come to grips with the tragedy.

Community of Saint-Jude mourns victims

Richard Préfontaine and Lynne Charbonneau on their wedding day in June 2002, with their older daughter, Amélie, as a preschooler, before their younger daughter, Anaïs, was born. At the time of their deaths, Amélie was 12 and Anaïs nine. ((CBC))
Quebec authorities say they will survey the region where a landslide claimed the lives of a family of four Monday night as residents in the farming community struggled to come to grips with the tragedy.

The search for members of the Préfontaine family ended Tuesday evening, when authorities found their bodies buried under a metre of thick mud and debris.

The family's cliffside country home in the small town of Saint-Jude, about 60 kilometres northeast of Montreal, sank in a massive landslide that left a kilometre-long crater.

Police said they found the bodies of Richard Préfontaine, Lynne Charbonneau and their daughters, Anaïs, 9, and Amélie, 12, in the basement, where they were believed to have been watching Game 6 of the Montreal Canadiens-Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup playoff series.

The family's home had shifted more than 30 metres from its original location, not far from the Salvail River, a tributary of the Yamaska River.

Officials in Saint-Jude, a town with a population of about 1,000, said they have been working for more than a decade to cope with problems of erosion with the clay-filled soil.

The Préfontaine family home was built in a zone considered low risk, said town councillor Christian Vanasse.

No construction is permitted in zones considered high, or even moderate, risk, he said.

Inspections underway

Over the next 48 hours, officials will survey the region to see whether they can find any other spots that show signs of a potential collapse, Vanasse said.

The province will also assist in the redrawing of geological maps of the area, said Michel C. Doré, Quebec's associate deputy public security minister.

Rescuers seen working at the scene of a landslide in Saint-Jude, Que., on Tuesday. The Préfontaine family home fell nine metres into a muddy crater, burying all four in the basement. ((Graham Hughes/Canadian Press))
"It is an ongoing operation, and with what we see here, we have more concerns and priorities to realign our plan of action," said Doré.

The deaths of the members of the Préfontaine hit frighteningly close to home for Saint-Jude resident Sylvie Lestage.

Two years ago, her 14-year old son, Gabriel, wandered into the Lestages' backyard to find half of it had been swept away in a similar landslide.

"Unfortunately, it takes a tragedy like this before they stop pointing fingers and someone pulls up their sleeves," said Lestage.

In the meantime, officials are erecting a fence around the crater to keep people away from the site until it is cleaned up.

Coming to terms with loss

Officials said a planned celebration marking the town's 175th anniversary this weekend will go on.

Now, more than ever, residents in the close-knit community need to get together, said Vanasse.

More than 200 people were already scheduled to attend the event, but officials expected this week's tragic events could boost that number.

On Wednesday, residents were still coming to terms with their grief.

At the company where Richard Préfontaine worked as an electrician, work was stalled as his co-workers reminisced about their lost friend.

Préfontaine had a passion for fishing and was keen to share the interest with his daughters, said Normand St-Onge.

Préfontaine holds his older daughter, Amélie, when she was a preschooler. ((CBC))
"They were a family that was very united," said St-Onge. "His daughters were such pretty little girls."

Anxiety mixed with sadness at Aux Quatre-Vents, a local elementary school where Anaïs was in Grade 4.

Principal Chantal Chagnon said she had never seen the bustling building so quiet.

In a small town like this one, she said, word spread quickly and the students knew why there was an empty seat in the class.

"We told them that in times like these we have to take care of each other," she said.

Psychologists are spending time at the school this week to help children cope with their loss.

"They are in the process [of] saying goodbye, so we have to write, draw, they send messages and they said to Anaïs, goodbye," Chagnon said.

The doors of the local church were wide open throughout the day.

Inside, a sign near the altar paid hommage to Charbonneau. It was placed there by a woman's group she had worked with.

Members of the national assembly in Quebec City observed a moment of silence in memory of the Préfontaine family and in solidarity with the community of Saint-Jude.

With files from The Canadian Press