A family mourning the loss of the 96-year-old family patriarch in the L’Isle-Verte fire is now dealing with a devastating pall of rumour and suspicion spreading through town that his cigarette may have ignited the inferno.
Reports pinpointing the origin of the fire to room 206 in the Résidence du Havre where 32 people are believed to have perished in the early hours Thursday have left the family of Paul-Étienne Michaud facing questions from villagers, media and Sûreté du Québec investigators about his smoking habits.
Investigators were seeking and interviewing Michaud family members on the weekend but insisted the smoking theory is but one possible avenue they are exploring among the swirl of rumours and information enveloping the town. They cautioned against hasty conclusions. An electrical room also circulated as a possible source in early reporting on the fire.
If the source of ignition was as banal as smoking, the case will provoke even more troubling questions about building codes, the absence of sprinklers and the use of wood building materials that allowed the fire to engulf an entire wing of the residence in minutes.
Mr. Michaud, a 96-year-old inveterate smoker, is believed to have died in the fire. His son, Jean-André Michaud said Saturday he believes his father has been misidentified as the smoker who tried to sneak out in the late night for a cigarette, and was sent back to his room just before the fire broke out.
“It’s going to be a terrible burden if it turns out he started the fire, but I don’t believe it,” said Jean-André Michaud in a tearful interview at his farm on the edge of L’Isle-Verte. “I just don’t believe it. He was not that big a smoker to get up in the middle of the night to light up.”
Bruno Bélanger, the night supervisor in the home, told Quebecor news outlets Friday that he chased a smoker back to room 206 after he tried to go out into the night. He said he was 95 per cent sure the man and room 206 were the source of the fire.
The name of Mr. Michaud, who kept a minivan as a makeshift smoking lounge in the parking lot of the residence, immediately spread around town, and triggered police inquiries with the Michaud family.
Some in his family insist he was living in room 208, not room 206 identified by Mr. Bélanger. They also say his tobacco addiction was not bad enough to drive him into the cold night, or to smoke inside.
Marie-Luce Dionne, whose mother, Laurette Filion, was rescued from the home told The Globe and Mail she was moved from room 206 into a main floor suite in the newer portion of the building, which survived the fire, on December 27. “She was saved by that move,” Ms. Dionne said.
Jean-André Michaud insists his father was not moved into that room in the past month. “If my father wasn’t there, he didn’t start the fire, damn it,” Mr. Michaud said.
However, Mr. Michaud admitted his father had a stubborn independence and a tobacco habit that dated back to age 12. His father was busted a few times for lighting a cigarette in his room when smoking was first banned a few years ago. He was allowed to smoke for his first 15 years in the place, Mr. Michaud said.
His description of his father’s high level of determination to get his way provoked a wave of laughter between tears for the gruff farmer. “When he got something in his head, he was tenacious as hell,” said Mr. Michaud, who himself shakes hands with an iron grip.
When the senior Mr. Michaud was about 90, he got into a minor accident and had his licence taken away. However, he still had the card in his possession and insisted he still had the right to drive. After his he was caught and had his vehicle taken away, he paid $800 cash for a minivan about four years ago to drive illegally around town.
Frustrated by the lengths to which his father would go to drive, Mr. Michaud said he orchestrated a “theft” of two wheels from his father’s van last summer. Even on blocks, his father kept the van and used it as a smoking lounge and demanded weekly to get his wheels back. “Tenacious,” Mr. Michaud said. “The windows were pretty much tinted (yellow). It was like an ashtray inside.”
He also described how his father would pretend to collect the mail at the entrance to the home to disguise lighting up on his way outside. “He never fell asleep while smoking,” said Mr. Michaud. “His clothes had a few holes from ashes, but at that age he shakes a bit.”
Other family members were convinced days ago that a cigarette belonging to the elder of a family lit the fire. Lise Michaud, a niece, said her uncle was easily the home’s most infamous smoker. “I kept saying I hope not, I hope not, I hope not. But you know, that poor old fella worked so hard all his life and it was basically his last pleasure.”
“I’d like to know what the bedspreads were made of,” said Lise Michaud, who retired to her ancestral area adding that certain synthetic materials ignite instantly.
After his father’s name began to surface, Jean-André Michaud said police investigators were at his house Friday night asking about his father’s smoking habits. The phone has not stopped ringing since.
Kim Mackrael and Verity Stevenson in L’Isle-Verte, Que., and Sean Gordon in Rivière-du-Loup, Que., contributed to this report.