Pair perished in winter storm after ignoring warnings not to drive home, Quebec coroner says

Drivers who set out in dangerous conditions must take more responsibility for their own safety and not rely on first responders for help, says Quebec coroner Luc Malouin after investigating the deaths of Pierre Thibault and Michaël Fiset.

Co-workers Michaël Fiset, Pierre Thibault died of CO poisoning after truck got stuck in March 2017 blizzard

Friends and family of Michaël Fiset and Pierre Thibault erected these crosses in memory of the co-workers who died in March 2017 on a country road that had been barricaded due to blizzard conditions. (Marc-Antoine Lavoie/Radio-Canada)

Drivers who set out despite dangerous winter weather conditions must take more responsibility for their own safety and not rely on first responders for help, says Quebec coroner Luc Malouin after investigating the deaths of Pierre Thibault and Michaël Fiset.

Thibault and Fiset got stuck in their vehicle after setting out for home in a blizzard on March 14, 2017 in Saint-Pierre-de-la-Rivière-du-Sud, 80 kilometres east of Quebec City.

Much of the province was paralyzed when heavy snowfall, mixed with winds of up to 100 km/h, caused whiteouts and giant snow drifts that forced Transports Québec to close many highways and roads.

Malouin concluded that Thibault and Fiset died of carbon monoxide poisoning after their pick-up truck got stuck in a snowbank on a closed road and ended up buried under one-and-a-half metres of snow. 
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)

In his report, the coroner said the two men underestimated the danger they were putting themselves in when they set out for home that night, despite being told by several people to stay put.

"I would have liked to not write these lines to not add to the pain of these two families," Malouin wrote. However, he  concluded that the decisions Thibault and Fiset made contributed to their deaths.

Wait for snowmobile rescue attempt 'too long'

The men left Gilmyr Transport, where they both worked, around 9:30 p.m. in Fiset's Ford F-150 pick-up truck, which had four-wheel drive. 

Both major highways in the area, Highway 20 and Highway 132, were closed at the time, as was Chemin du Coteau, the country road the two men took to try to get home to their families, 13 kilometres away.

Fiset drove around the barricade across Chemin du Coteau, and just before 11 p.m., the truck got stuck in a snowdrift, the coroner said.

After alerting their families, Thibault called 911 at 11:18 p.m, while Fiset walked to a nearby house, taking a shovel he found there back to the car to try to dig out the exhaust pipe.

It took two hours before the Sûreté du Québec was able to send out a team on snowmobiles, because the person who was trained for snowmobile rescues at the nearest detachment was already out on patrol.

Malouin said that two-hour wait was too long.

"It's like having an ambulance at a station, without any ambulance workers," Malouin told Radio-Canada.

Police finally headed out around 1:20 a.m., four minutes after Fiset placed one last call to police, saying he was having trouble breathing.
A police snowmobile wasn't able to reach the spot where the truck was buried in snow until 8 a.m. on March 15, 2017, nearly five hours after Fiset last made contact with police. (Alexandra Duval/Radio-Canada)

By that point, Thibault was unconscious. 

The SQ snowmobile was never able to reach the truck, as it also got stuck in the heavy snow.

The police officers nonetheless continued on foot but were never able to find the vehicle.

It wasn't until 8 a.m. that they managed to locate the truck and dig it out, with the help of heavy snow-clearing machinery. 

They discovered the body of Thibault in the driver's seat and Fiset's outside the truck.

False sense of security?

Gilbert Samson, who owns the Garage G.G.B. Samson, spoke to the men after they got stuck, when they called him for help before contacting police. 

Unable to see 100 metres in front of his house, he told them to leave the truck and seek refuge. 

"Save your skin," he said he told them.

The next morning, he tried to call them back but got no answer. He went out to assist police in finding the buried truck and said conditions were still so brutal, he had to rely on sighting telephone polls on either side of the road to find his way.

"The snow was as high as my loader," Samson recalled.

He doesn't understand why the men didn't accept offers to stay with friends, knowing how bad conditions can get.

Gilbert Samson, the owner of Garage G.G.B. Samson, cleared the roads for police on March 15, 2017, to reach Fiset's truck. He said the men should never have gone out in that kind of weather, especially in an area that is often particularly windy. (Radio-Canada)
"It's sad. It was reckless of them," he said.

Driving a four-wheel drive vehicle may have given Fiset and Thibault a false sense of security, Samson said.

"You're just more likely to get stuck further down the road than everyone else."  

The coroner also warned against putting too much faith in vehicles with four-wheel drive. He said drivers must take their personal safety into their own hands, Malouin concluded. 

"If you're stuck in a snowstorm, there's a chance that first responders will get stuck too," he said.

Malouin recommends the SQ review its methods, to ensure qualified snowmobile drivers are present during major snowstorms.

The coroner said if police had left two hours earlier, the men might still have been alive by the time police reached them.

He said, however, there is no way of knowing if police would have been able to find the vehicle.

Changes made since 2017

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

The Ministry of Transport has made changes since the 2017 storm, which left hundreds of drivers stranded on Highway 13 in Montreal.

An investigation launched by the province at the time concluded there were "serious organizational shortcomings" and communication issues involving both Transports Québec and the SQ.

"Now we're able to follow the situation almost in real time," Coiteux said. Senior personnel are also supposed to monitor the cameras during extreme weather warnings, he said.

Transport Minister André Fortin said secondary roads like the one where Thibault and Fiset got stuck are not necessarily on the ministry's radar.

He said this is why it's important to not only issue weather warnings, but also remind people of the risks that come with driving in extreme weather conditions.

During the snowstorm that swept through the region just last week, several roads in the Chaudières-Appalaches region were closed to traffic for more than eight hours.

With files from Radio-Canada's Cathy Senay