Tow-truck driver warned 2 men to seek refuge hours before they died in blizzard
Trucking firm where men worked calls in counsellors to help devastated colleagues
When tow-truck operator Gilbert Samson responded to a call from the provincial police Tuesday morning to help recover a snow-covered truck in which two men had been buried, he wondered whether he should even be on the road himself.
The blizzard conditions in Saint-Pierre-de-la-Rivière-du-Sud, about 80 kilometres northeast of Quebec City, had abated, but the drifts were so high Samson couldn't figure out where the road was.
"You could see absolutely nothing," Samson said, noting he had to watch for the hydro poles to navigate.
Police had called Samson's garage at 6:30 that morning, seven hours after receiving a distress call from Pierre Thibault and Mickael Fiset, who said they were caught in a pickup truck in the mammoth storm.
Men called for tow truck
Samson said the men had also called him the night of the blizzard, about 45 minutes before they called police.
He told them what he has been telling people in snowstorms for 40 years: go to the nearest refuge to stay warm. The vehicle can be dealt with afterward.
"Save your skin," he said he told them.
The next morning, he tried to call them back but got no answer.
Nonetheless, Samson still found himself searching for them that morning, along with provincial police. Officers had tried and failed to find the truck through the night, using geo-location from one of the men's cellphones.
Samson said by the time he met up with officers that morning, police still had no idea where the truck was.
"I was rummaging through a snowbank, trying to find a vehicle," he said. Finally, the snowplow exposed a piece of the pickup truck.
When he first tried to pull it out from under the mountain of snow, the truck was so deeply buried, it ripped the hook right off his tow truck. Searchers had to dig out the vehicle further before they could peek inside.
To everyone's horror, Thibault and Fiset were dead inside the truck.
Samson said the vehicle was so enveloped in snow, he believes the men might have suffocated.
The exact cause of their deaths is still unknown. The bodies of the men, aged 33 and 41, have been sent for autopsies.
The search-and-rescue team also found three other vehicles buried in the snow during the same operation. The occupants — two women and one man — were uninjured.
Co-workers in shock
Thibault and Fiset were found just a few kilometres from Gilmyr Transport where they worked.
Thibault had told his co-workers earlier Tuesday evening to stay off the roads, hours later getting into a vehicle himself and becoming fatally trapped.
Gilmyr Transport's director of operations, Marcus Deschênes, is at a loss to explain why the two men decided to try to get home late that night.
"I have no idea," Deschênes said. "I just don't know."
He said employees at the transportation company are devastated. The two men were popular with their fellow workers.
"They were well-liked, it's certain," said financial controller Carl Martin. "That's why they're so overcome by grief."
Counsellors from the local community health centre and a psychologist are at the workplace today to offer psychological support.
"It's hard for the whole company," said Deschênes.
With files from Radio-Canada's Alexandra Duval