Towing firm says neither SQ nor Transport Ministry intervened during Highway 13 debacle

The owner of the towing company with the contract for Highway 13 said neither police nor the Transport Ministry stepped in to help after the drivers of two stuck semi-trailers refused to allow their trucks to be towed during Tuesday night's blizzard.

Drivers of 2 stuck semi-trailers refused to be towed from snow-covered highway, says towing company owner

Cars were stuck on Highway 13 for hours as the snowstorm raged on. (Simon-Marc Charron/Radio-Canada)

The owner of the towing company with the contract for Highway 13 said neither police nor Quebec's Transport Ministry stepped in to help after the drivers of two stuck semi-trailers refused to allow their trucks to be towed during Tuesday night's blizzard.

More than 300 vehicles were stranded overnight Tuesday into Wednesday along Highway 13 as the blizzard raged on.

It was not until around 4:30 a.m. Wednesday that police and firefighters began helping to move out stranded vehicles.

"There was nobody there," said Mike Burstall, owner of Remorquage Burstall. "The SQ couldn't come, the Ministry of Transport wasn't there, the snow cleaners weren't there — we were alone."

Burstall's employees were approaching trucks trapped along the snow-choked highway Tuesday night when two drivers categorically refused to be towed.

"The trucker said to him, 'I told you, don't touch my truck.... When they remove the snow, I'll move my car,'" said Burstall.

If drivers refused to be towed, the company, which has exclusive rights over the highway, then calls the Sûreté du Québec to intervene, and police officers arrive to give the towing order to the driver.

This time officers didn't come because they were too busy, so the towing company had its hands tied, Burstall said.

"My employee can't start a fight on the highway," said Burstall. "They don't have that right."

Burstall told Radio-Canada that an agent from the SQ tried to talk to one of the truck drivers on the phone, but the driver refused to take the call.

Burstall said his employees were out on the road with their tow trucks by around 8 p.m. Tuesday, however, police officers only arrived in person to deal with the recalcitrant truckers early Wednesday morning.

Dozens of drivers were trapped last week on Highway 13 in Quebec. Some of them ran out of gas and had to be towed. (Simon-Marc Charron/Radio-Canada)

The slow reaction from authorities followed by the wave of criticism from trapped drivers and provincial opposition parties triggered Premier Philippe Couillard to launch an independent review of the Quebec government's handling of the situation.

'Police didn't do their job'

On Thursday, SQ spokesperson Guy Lapointe said the police force was investigating to see if the refusal by the two drivers to have their semi-trailers towed was responsible for hindering the work of police officers during the storm.

"Are we talking about an offence of a penal nature or a criminal nature? That aspect is currently the subject of an investigation."

However, Pierre Aubin, the vice-president of the Quebec Trucking Association, countered that two truck drivers who didn't want to be towed are not to blame in this situation.

"You might have found two stupid truck drivers, this I will not deny, but people were stuck on the road for 12 to 14 hours," said Aubin, given that police officers only showed up hours later to free stranded drivers.

Montreal is still digging out after Tuesday night's major snowstorm. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Aubin said the truck drivers are being made scapegoats, "because the police didn't do their job."

Burstall doesn't fault the police nor the two truck drivers but argues that his employees couldn't force drivers to have their trucks towed.

"It was a recipe for disaster," he told CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

Public security minister apologizes

Quebec Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux said he couldn't comment directly on the case outlined by the towing company since an internal investigation is underway, but he apologized for the government's inaction that night.

"We were not A1 in the management of this situation, and we're very sorry about that," he said. "And we'll learn from this experience."

However, he noted, neither he nor Transport Minister Laurent Lessard were told about the mess on Highway 13 until Wednesday morning.

"If I had known what was going on at that critical stage and I could see the shortcomings of the situation, I would have reacted immediately," said Coiteux.

Premier Philippe Couillard weighed in on the situation again on Friday, reiterating that he is not happy with how it was handled, and saying there needs to be better coordination in the future.

With files from Marilla Steuter-Martin, CBC Montreal's Daybreak and Radio-Canada's Gravel le matin