Montreal

Firefighters recall L'Isle-Verte residents' desperate cries for help

Firefighters called to the deadly blaze in l’Isle-Verte, Que., met a wall of fire when they arrived at the seniors’ home that January night, conditions that proved too dangerous to attempt to rescue some of the residents trapped inside, a coroner's inquest was told.

'If it had been a movie on television, we would have saved them all'

Firefighters battle flames at a L'Isle-Verte, Que., seniors' home in January 2014. Thirty-two residents were killed in the fire. (Infodimanche)

Firefighters called to the deadly blaze in L’Isle-Verte, Que., in January met a wall of fire when they arrived at the seniors’ home, conditions that proved too dangerous to attempt to rescue some of the elderly residents trapped inside, a coroner's inquest heard Tuesday. 

Five men, some with decades of experience, told the inquest they didn't attempt to save anyone from the older section of the Résidence du Havre. They said the flames rose from what was the dining room and kitchen towards the roof.

One firefighter, Jean-Yves Dubé, 67, recalled hearing people on balconies yelling, "Save us, save us."

"If it had been a movie on television, we would have saved them all," said Dubé.

Even firefighter Jean-Guy Côté, whose own mother was inside the residence, said there was "too much smoke" when he arrived at the scene of the fire to attempt to save her.  Noëlla Pettigrew, 87, was one of the 32 people who died that night.

The coroner’s inquest into the deadly fire at the Résidence du Havre heard testimony from several members of the local fire department, including the highly anticipated account of Fire Chief Yvan Charron.

L’Isle-Verte Fire Chief Yvan Charron told coroner Cyrille Delâge he expected the evacuation of the Résidence du Havre to be underway when he arrived on the scene. (Catou Mackinnon/CBC)

Earlier this morning, Charron told coroner Cyrille ​Delâgehe he didn't immediately call in reinforcements for the massive fire at the seniors' home, because it didn't occur to him. In the past, he normally called for reinforcements once he arrived at the scene, he said. 

When he arrived, he expected the evacuation of the Résidence du Havre to be underway. 

Charron said he didn’t think some of the residents would still be asleep in bed in their rooms, possibly medicated. 

'You have to set the example'

The firefighters who testified today told the inquest that Charron is a "natural leader" and that they always knew what they should be doing.

Charron faced criticism from previous witnesses because he never established a command post to issue orders, and he only called in reinforcements 19 minutes after the initial 911 call.

Normand Morin, an officer with the nearby St-Éloi fire department, who was also called to the fire, said he was "surprised" Charron never put on his respirator.

"As chief, you have to be an example," said Morin, the 39th witness to testify at the inquest.

Charron told the coroner he didn’t want to take the "minute, minute and a half" to put on his respirator because it would take time away from saving lives.

Charron also said his "mind was not as clear" as possible when he was awakened that night. He told the coroner he was used to "getting a call, going to a call."

And he thought that night if he could "just save one person" that night, it would be enough.

People were left on their own- Christian Chénard-Guay, co-ordinator for fire safety for the Rivière-du-Loup region

On the fourth day of the inquest, the co-ordinator for fire safety in the region had harsh words for the fire department’s response.

“People were left to their own devices,” Christian Chénard-Guay told coroner Cyrille Delâge.

Chénard-Guay testified about a fire chief’s responsibilities when a high-risk building such as a seniors' residence catches fire.

He said the fire chief must call for help from other fire departments immediately, and a command post has to be set up to co-ordinate efforts to put out the flames.