Quebec has announced a coroner’s inquest into the blaze that claimed 32 lives at a seniors’ residence last winter, raising hopes of unearthing the still-unexplained cause behind one of the worst seniors’-home fires in Canada’s history.
Residents in the small town of L’Isle-Verte unveiled two glass plaques over the weekend dedicated to the elderly men and women who perished in the nighttime blaze in January, as well as to the tragedy’s 22 survivors.
Yet seven months after the fire, there has been little transparency about what went wrong that night, giving rise to conflicting reports and rumours in the town of 1,200.
One of Quebec’s most experienced fire commissioners has been tasked with leading the inquest. Cyrille Delage has headed probes into some of Quebec’s deadliest blazes, including the fire at Le Repos du Vieillard in 1969 that killed 39 residents at the seniors’ home, southeast of L’Isle-Verte.
Public Security Minister Lise Thériault said Tuesday that Mr. Delage will search for the “origin and likely causes” of the L’Isle Verte fire. Though she said the inquest would be public, she gave contradictory information about the extent of its public nature. Some testimony could be held behind closed doors, she said.
For the town’s residents, still coping with the loss of their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, the probe is overdue.
“It’s important to know the truth about what happened. We’re waiting for results,” said Charles-Hector Fraser, who lost his older sister, Madeleine, in the blaze. “Who didn’t do their job? Who did? We’re waiting. We know nothing.”
Mr. Fraser said the probe needs to be open to the public. “A public inquiry has to be public, not half hidden.”
Quebec’s provincial police, the Sûreté du Québec, is already investigating the fire in the 52-unit Résidence du Havre in L’Isle-Verte, 230 kilometres northeast of Quebec City. A police spokesman on Tuesday would not disclose details of its findings and said the investigation is ongoing.
The co-owner of the residence, Roch Bernier, said at a press conference this month that the Sûreté du Québec favours the theory that the fire started in the home’s kitchen. Mr. Bernier, however, said he believes it began in the room, above the kitchen, of a resident who was smoking.
Mr. Bernier is part of a $3.8-million civil lawsuit against the town of L’Isle-Verte that claims the town failed to respond adequately and implement emergency plans that might have lowered the fire’s death toll.