Drivers stranded on Highway 13 during 2017 snowstorm to finally receive their compensation
Sûreté du Québec dispatcher recordings highlight stress, concern and anger of stranded drivers
Almost four years after a massive snowstorm and a major truck accident left thousands of drivers stranded on Highway 13, they will soon be compensated between $400 and $1,400.
"I've worked for the Sûreté du Québec for 17 years and I've never seen a day like this."
At 9:01 p.m. the night of March 14, 2017, a provincial police dispatcher says those words to a woman calling from Highway 13.
"I will do what I can to make sure things are done as quickly as possible but no miracles, unfortunately."
Things were about to get worse.
A massive snow storm walloped Montreal that night and when, at 6:08 p.m., a collision caused a tractor-trailer to jack-knife across the highway, drivers suddenly found themselves stuck, with snow piling high.
Almost 300 people were stranded in their vehicles overnight on the stretch of Highway 13 just south of the Côte-de-Liesse Highway. Others abandoned their vehicles and trudged through the snow to get home.
Now, compensation is coming their way.
"As of next week, we'll be starting payment to the first group of claimants," said Jean-Marc Lacourcière, one of the lawyers behind the class-action lawsuit settled with the province of Quebec.
"It's between $400 and $1,400 depending on how long people were stuck in their car."
People with medical conditions or vulnerabilities will receive slighly more compensation than others.
Calls to dispatchers highlight worry, stress
Throughout the night, more than 300 calls were made to 911 from people stuck on Highway 13, or others worried about family members.
Audio recordings of the dispatchers obtained by Radio-Canada showcase the hectic situation throughout the snow storm and the range of emotions felt by drivers stuck. The recordings do not include the voice of the callers, for privacy reasons.
9:06, one dispatcher to another: "There's just two of us and we are getting six calls at a time. I'm not kidding!"
9:48: "I don't have any other solution, madame, other than to wait. It will clear up. Why are you saying that nobody is doing anything? I am confirming that we are doing something."
10:20: "I cannot tell you to leave your car there and go. I cannot tell you but you see, if no one's moving, don't stay there. I don't want you to starve to death."
Hours after the initial accident that caused the back up, the dispatchers continue to field calls, attempting to reassure drivers and tell them help is on the way.
Sometimes, frustration from the dispatchers themselves bubbles over.
1:18 a.m.: "I'm sorry sir, look sir," one dispatcher yells."There's a lot of people stuck with their car so you have to be patient, okay? The guy with the tow truck, do you think that it's easy for him running in the snow?"
Others try to give advice.
2:02: "Sir, did you try to ask somebody to get in the car to heat up a little bit?"
3:47: "I can't tell you if it'll be a long time, madame but we are there," one dispatcher says to a woman who is audibly crying in the background. "We are starting to clear cars now, okay?"
4:02: "Don't worry miss, we're taking care of you now. There's police and everyone is over there to take you off the highway, you will see somebody soon."
Compensation brings relief
For those stuck on the highway that night, the news that compensation is coming is welcome.
"Hearing the money will be coming soon is exciting news," said Djemira de Pagter, who was stuck in her car for 11 hours.
"I know many people are in financial need due to COVID and hopefully this will allow them to breathe a little."
She is however, a little disappointed.
"I believe that $400 to $1,400 does not even cover the amount of time and stress we endured."
De Pagter says she remained calm that night, but is angry about the lack of action taken.
"How are you not prepared," she said. "Why was there no support whatsoever?"
Marcy McCallum spent 9 hours on the highway, calling 911 twice to see what was going on.
"I'm pleased to learn that compensation is finally on its way," she told CBC.
"Yet more importantly, I expect such an event to never take place on Quebec roads again."
A second class-action, against the City of Montreal, has yet to be settled.
With files from Radio-Canada's Daniel Boily