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Quebec provincial police vehicles are seen in St-Henri-de-Taillon, Que., on Jan. 22, 2020.

Rocket Lavoie/The Canadian Press

Quebec provincial police continued to search for five missing tourists from France Wednesday afternoon, after a group of snowmobilers who were travelling off trail plunged through the ice the previous evening near Quebec’s Lac-Saint-Jean.

Police said 42-year-old Benoit L’Esperance of Montreal – who was serving as a guide to a group of eight French tourists – died several hours after being admitted to hospital Tuesday night. Three other members of the group reached safety.

A search Wednesday morning of the area about 200 kilometres north of Quebec City involved provincial police on snowmobiles, local firefighters and Canadian Armed Forces personnel.

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By afternoon, the military had left but police helicopters, boats, and two teams of divers had joined the effort, provincial police Sgt. Beatrice Dorsainville said.

Dorsainville said police were also searching the shorelines, adding that it “wasn’t impossible” that some of the snowmobilers could have made it to safety.

Earlier in the day, Sgt. Hugues Beaulieu said the tourists and their guide were travelling between St-Henri-de-Taillon and Alma when the ice gave way.

One person was taken to hospital after being pulled from the water by two other members of the group, who made it to a nearby convenience store and alerted authorities at around 7:30 p.m.

Rescuers later found the guide, who died in hospital.

Andree Laforest, the minister responsible for the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region, said the Quebec government is in contact with authorities in France and the families were being contacted.

“There are questions people are asking, such as, did they get lost?” she said Wednesday in Quebec City. “That will be part of the investigation.”

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In the hours following the accident, authorities stressed the dangers of straying off marked and groomed snowmobile trails.

Gaetan Gagne, the president of the Lac-Saint-Jean snowmobile club, said the area where the accident occurred, known as the Grande Decharge, is known to be extremely dangerous.

“Enthusiasts in the area, they know it well,” he said in a phone interview. “They know you shouldn’t go near the Grande Decharge because there’s a dam lower down, so the water isn’t calm. It almost never freezes.”

Gagne said the snowmobilers must have been “at least a couple of kilometres” off the trails, which he said are well-marked and easy to follow.

France Paradis, a retired journalist and snowmobiler who lives in the area, echoed Gagne’s confusion.

He said it’s unusual for guided tours to be out at 7:30 p.m., especially in an area known for open water and fast currents.

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“A professional guide who knows the area well would never go there, especially at this time of the year,” he said.

Laforest, for her part, said it was still too early to speculate about how the group came to be where they were. She said the Quebec government has been working on a new framework to regulate the province’s tourist operators, which will be announced in the coming days.

She noted that the mishap occurred in the middle of International Snowmobile Safety Week.

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