L'Isle-Verte rescue effort was 'free for all,' witness says

Pascal Paquin described how he tried twice to rescue residents from their balconies, both times in vain.

Good Samaritan Pascal Paquin traumatized by what he witnessed during rescue effort

Firefighters battle flames at the L'Isle-Verte seniors' home in Quebec in January. (Infodimanche)

A witness to the fire at a seniors' residence in L'Isle-Verte, Que., in January of this year that killed 32 people told a coroner’s inquest that the scene was a "free for all."

The inquest, which started on Nov.17 in Rivière-du-Loup, was ordered by Public Security Minister Lise Thériault to examine the cause of death for each of the 32 victims as well as the details surrounding the fire at the Résidence du Havre.

Pascal Paquin was driving on the highway past the seniors' home around 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 23 when he saw smoke coming out of the building.

Paquin, 44, from Napierville, was on his way to Paspébiac  on the Gaspé coast with two siblings, and their grandmother at the time. 

He told the coroner a pickup truck had cut him off  on Highway 132, and when he looked back, he saw smoke.  He made a U-turn to park the car near the Résidence du Havre.

His sister filmed what they all saw.

The coroner’s office decided to show the video shot by Nathalie Paquin- Tanguay without any sound out of respect for the families still grieving the loss of their parents and grandparents.

Paquin told the inquest he pulled into the parking lot and ran to the front doors. He said the second set of doors was locked.

He told coroner Cyrille Delâge he made his way to the back of the building and heard people crying out for help.

He went back to his car to grab a flashlight and a balaclava to protect himself from the dark, dense smoke.

“I couldn’t even see where I was walking,” he said. 

He found a ladder nearby and tried to rescue a man from a third-floor balcony.

Paquin said his attempt was unsuccessful because the ladder was too short, but rescue crews soon arrived.

“It was a free for all,” Paquin said of the rescue effort. “The first firefighter I saw wasn’t wearing an oxygen mask. I almost suffocated,” he said.

“There wasn’t one single firefighter who went around the building to see if anyone was in distress,” he said.

Residents describe how they survived

Two residents who survived the deadly fire also gave their accounts of what happened.

Conrad Morin, 89, had lived on the third floor of the residence for only a few months at the time of the fire. His 92-year-old wife, Eva Saindon, had been there for several years. She lived on the first floor. They both lived in the older section of the building.

Morin told the coroner he woke up coughing. He said when he went into the hallway, he heard several women screaming for help.

Because of the thick smoke, the former firefighter decided his best chance was to go back to his room and escape from the balcony.

Using a bedsheet, Morin lowered himself part way and jumped. He woke the next morning in hospital, suffering from several fractures.

Morin's wife died in the fire.

Arnaud Côté, 84, who lived in the newer part of the building, saved three people the night of the fire.

Côté said he awoke to the sound of alarm bells. He knocked at the doors of three residents, telling them to dress warmly and follow him out.

He said he remembered wondering how many people would die that night.

Owners to testify next month

The inquest was initially scheduled to hear testimony over six days, but the lawyer for the coroner said it's clear that was not long enough to hear all the evidence.

Close to fifty people have testified so far and more than 100 documents, pictures and videos have been entered into evidence.

The owners of the seniors' home in l'Isle-Verte, Roch Bernier and Irène Plante, will be telling their side of the story next month.