Families of 2 men who died in 2017 blizzard demand apology from Quebec

Valérie Tanguay was supposed to celebrate her fourth anniversary with Pierre Thibault on March 15, 2017. Instead, it was the day she found out her partner had died, along with his friend Michaël Fiset, their truck buried in a blizzard.

Loved ones say Michaël Fiset, Pierre Thibault may have survived if rescuers had set out earlier

Valérie Tanguay says her partner, Pierre Thibault, was calm when he called her on March 14, 2017 to say he was stuck in a snowstorm. He and his co-worker, Michaël Fiset, died of carbon monoxide poisoning after their truck was buried in a snowdrift. (Radio-Canada)

Valérie Tanguay was supposed to celebrate her fourth anniversary with Pierre Thibault on March 15, 2017.

Instead, it was the day she found out Thibault had died, along with his friend Michaël Fiset, their truck buried under metres of snow after the men set out in a blizzard on Quebec City's south shore.

"Pierre died because the emergency plan failed," Tanguay said Tuesday, hours after reading Coroner Luc Malouin's report looking into the circumstances of their deaths.

Malouin concluded the two men had been reckless setting out in the middle of a winter storm, however, he was also critical of police and civil security for being ill-prepared for the blizzard.

The families are now considering taking legal action against the province for its handling of the failed rescue operation.

2-hour delay after 911 call

Fiset's Ford-150 pick-up truck got stuck in a snowdrift on a closed country road, as he and Thibault tried to get home from their workplace in Saint-Pierre-de-la-Rivière-du-Sud, 80 kilometres east of Quebec City.

They called 911 at 11:18 p.m., but the only Sûreté du Québec officer trained to operate the snowmobile at the nearest detachment was already out on patrol. It was two hours before he was able to set out to look for the men in the truck.

Tanguay said that two-hour delay may have made the difference between life and death.
Michaël Fiset, left, and Pierre Thibault both worked for Gilmyr Transport in Saint-Pierre-de-la-Rivière-du-Sud, 80 kilometres east of Quebec City. (Submitted by families)

"We know they made the first mistake by going out," she said. "That doesn't mean they should have been left on their own."

Families still waiting for apology

The men died overnight on March 14, the same night that hundreds of commuters were left stranded on Highway 13 in Montreal because of a communication breakdown between the Ministry of Transport and first responders.

The public outrage that followed prompted Premier Philippe Couillard to offer a public apology to the motorists three days later.

Tanguay said neither she nor Fiset's family got the same courtesy.

"I'm still waiting for a phone call for the death of my partner," she said.

The families heard nothing official about the circumstances of Thibault and Fiset's deaths until the coroner's report was released. Thibault's sister, Maryline Thibault, said she was stunned to find out it had taken two hours for police to set out to find her brother.

"We hope with all our hearts that no one else has to lose a loved one in this kind of situation," she said, holding back tears.
Maryline Thibault said she was shocked to find out it took two hours before SQ officers set out on their snowmobiles to find her stranded brother, Pierre Thibault, and his co-worker. (Radio-Canada)

Unreasonable delay, says lawyer

Lawyer Marc Bellemare is working with the families to determine if there are grounds for a formal lawsuit.

"Police failed them miserably," Bellemare said.

The coroner's report indicated that the two men died of carbon monoxide poisoning, which means the families could be eligible for compensation from Quebec's automobile insurance board, the SAAQ. 

If that's the case, then under Quebec's no-fault insurance provisions, the families would not be entitled to sue for compensation, however, Bellemare said he needs to study the jurisprudence first.

History repeats itself, 20 years later

The deaths of Thibault and Fiset came 20 years after another young man perished in eerily similar circumstances, just a 10-minute drive west of the spot where the 2017 deaths occurred.

21-year-old François Goupil died of carbon monoxide poisoning on Feb. 22, 1997, after his car got stuck on Highway 281, near Saint-Michel-de-Bellechasse, during a snowstorm.

Goupil had just exited Highway 20 when he encountered a total whiteout. He called for a tow truck, and his car was pulled out by the same tow-truck company that Thibault and Fiset called when they got stuck in 2017.
The roads in the region where Michaël Fiset and Pierre Thibault died in March 2017 are often closed down during winter storms, because of the high winds that come in from the St. Lawrence River. (Marc-Antoine Lavoie/Radio-Canada)

Goupil, however, didn't it make it far before hitting another snowbank. His car was quickly buried and found by snow-clearing teams the following day.

Like Malouin, Coroner Gilles Perron recommended that authorities offer more warnings of the dangers of going out in perilous weather.

Perron also recommended in 1997 that the Ministry of Transport be better prepared, with snowmobile teams ready during blizzards.

On Tuesday, the Minister of Public Security Martin Coiteux said the SQ will review the recommendations to see if it can improve any of its practices.

Coiteux said changes have been made since the 2017 deaths. The Ministry of Transport has more cameras monitoring road conditions on major highways, and there are more senior employees on duty during weather alerts.