L'Isle-Verte survivor Arnaud Côté reflects on year since tragic fire

L'Isle-Verte retirement home fire survivor Arnaud Côté reflects on the lonely year he's had since his friends perished at Résidence du Havre.

Côté, 85, speaks of profound loneliness since losing his friends in Quebec retirement home fire

Arnaud Côté managed to escape the fire and save three others residents of Résidence du Havre. ( Catou Mackinnon/CBC)

Asked to describe the last year of his life, Arnaud Cô pauses on the other end of the line, measuring his response.

After considering his reply for a few moments, the 85-year-old retired dairy farmer comes back with a single word: "ennuyant," a French word to describe his loneliness without friends he'd known for years.

In one night, Côté's life was turned upside down when a fierce fire swept through the Résidence du Havre in L'Isle-Verte, Que., on Jan. 23, 2014, killing 32 people who were caught within its walls.

"It's been lonely," Côté said in a recent interview. "Those were my friends who died there."

His life and countless others were forever marked by the tragedy.

"It's still difficult, I think about it every day," Côté said.

Commemorating one year since tragedy

On Friday, a mass, a short march to the site of the blaze and a small intimate gathering at a local school later in the evening will mark the grim anniversary.

The fire at Résidence du Havre claimed the lives of 32 people.

Sonia Ouellet, an organizer of the events, says the feeling around town is not so much wanting to see someone held accountable for the blaze as much as families wanting to be able to move on from a difficult, unforgettable year.

First came the fatal fire and a long mourning period before a coroner's inquest that, as Ouellet put it, unearthed information not previously known by relatives.

On Friday, residents will relive the tragedy again, out of necessity.

"For us, it was clear from the beginning that with 32 dead and the entire village in mourning, we'd have to do something to mark it," Ouellet said. "For sure, the families wanted it over with but we knew it wasn't something we could just overlook."

Ouellet runs a family daycare and has lived in the eastern Quebec village of 1,500 since 2004. She didn't lose anyone personally in the fire, but it's hard not to be touched by the loss in such a small town.

"It hit us like our own grandmother or grandfather had died in the fire," said Ouellet, who kept children for free last year as their families laid relatives to rest.

"The seniors from here, we said hello to them every day," she said. "They were like a living library of our town's history."

L'Isle-Verte wants to turn the page

The village's mayor says there isn't an appetite in the community for vengeance or a need to see people charged criminally.

In fact, Ursule Thériault says it's the furthest thing from the minds of most people, who simply want to turn the page.

"It's a small community, we haven't felt anything like this here," Thériault said when asked about criminal charges. "Even after several days of public hearings, even if some days were difficult, we've never felt this sentiment."

After the fire, I was alone. The rest of them all burned.- Arnaud Côté, former resident of Résidence du Havre

What sparked the fire remains unknown: a police probe pinpointed the source as the kitchen, but investigators weren't able to determine how it started.

Quebec's director of criminal and penal prosecutions is still considering whether to lay charges.

For his part, Côté says he doesn't wish to see anyone charged either, calling it an accident.

He still remembers vividly what happened, waking up, yelling for help, stopping to bang on the doors to wake up three female tenants in his wing and helping them to safety.

Côté lived in a newer section of the Résidence du Havre where all but one resident survived thanks to a firewall.

He downplays his actions, described by many as heroic.

"It was something I was happy to do and the kids all came to thank me for saving their mothers," Côté said.

Many of the occupants in the 52-unit building were over 85 and all but a handful had limited movement, being confined to wheelchairs and walkers.

Lonely year since fire

Côté is one of two former tenants who were able to stay in town. The rest were spread out to homes in neighbouring communities, but Côté had long resolved to remain in the parish.

Conrad Morin (left) and Arnaud Côté were the first two survivors from the fire at the Résidence du Havre in L'Isle-Verte to testify at the coroner's inquest in late 2014. (Radio-Canada)

He says he misses a quiet life shared with friends in the quaint, well-run facility.

"Those who died there, we were all friends," said Côté. "We were organized, we played cards in the afternoon. There were six of us."

The events of last January changed all that.

"After the fire, I was alone," Côté recounted. "The rest of them all burned."

What's left standing, damaged by smoke and water, is for sale. And Thériault would like for it to become a new elder-care residence.

Thériault said the tragedy in her town gave her some insight into what her own father went through when her grandfather perished in another major Quebec seniors' home blaze 45 years ago.

"I lost my grandfather in the same circumstances (fire) in 1969 in Notre-Dame-de-Lac," said Thériault. "It helped me to understand better the feelings my father was showing back then."

Resisting national media in aftermath

Thériault was in Florida last year when the tragedy struck. When her son rapped on her door and gave her the news, she thought at first he was joking.

She rushed back to L'Isle-Verte to find a community in mourning and her village unrecognizable — teeming with journalists from across the country. Thériault categorically declared to local reporters the town would be better off without the national media, a comment that shocked some at the time.

Thériault says she felt obliged to take that position given the pressure felt by community members inundated by the media crush.

"The morning I made that famous statement, citizens had come to me a day earlier and said, 'Ursule, we can't deal with this, what do we do,"' she recalled. "The situation was unsustainable for them.

"If I had to do it again, I probably would have said the same thing."

Côté too felt the media crush — having told his story to many journalists over the last few months and then to the coroner's inquest in late November.

"There's not much more I can say," he says a year later.

He's living his life as best he can, in a nice room at a renovated convent that serves as a seniors' home in town where he feels safe and secure.

Côté doesn't spend much time pondering the safety of seniors' homes, saying what he knows is farming. He's focused on maintaining his own health — he's quite fit, has his wits and still drives a car.

Once the commemoration is done, it will be about moving forward.

"You have to turn the page, you have to go forward," said Côté. "You have to try as much as possible. Always thinking about it gets on your nerves."