A Quebec community is mourning the weekend deaths of five people, including a father and his two young sons, who were swept away by the rising tide while fishing near Portneuf-sur-Mer.
Provincial police said four children – all aged older than 10 – were found unresponsive early Saturday morning and taken to a local health centre, where they were later pronounced dead. The man’s body was recovered in the St. Lawrence River in the evening after a search that involved provincial police divers, officers on ATVs and boats, members of the Canadian Armed Forces, and a Coast Guard helicopter.
They were part of a group of 11 people who were fishing capelin, a small silvery smelt fish, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on foot when they were caught up in the rising tide. Six people were rescued after police were called in around 2 a.m. on Saturday.
On Sunday, police identified the man as Keven Girard, 37, of the municipality of Les Bergeronnes, located about 100 kilometres southwest of the site of the incident.
Police have not released the names of the children, but several relatives, friends, and neighbours of the victims who took their grief to social media on Sunday identified two of the children who died as Mr. Girard’s sons, Patrick and Jérôme.
Mr. Girard’s aunt, Vivian Lavoie, said “everyone is gutted” by the tragedy.
“Everyone knows each other here. It’s tight here. Everyone is affected, because we know them all.”
André Desrosiers, the Mayor of Les Escoumins, a riverside town located between Les Bergeronnes and Portneuf-sur-Mer, where the mother of Mr. Girard’s sons lives, said the tragedy has hit everyone hard.
“We are a small tight-knit community, so it is certain that everyone knew the kids, so yes, the whole community is grieving,” he said. “It affects a lot of people because it is a well-known family. It affects the entire high North Coast.”
Mr. Desrosiers said the municipality would organize a vigil in the next few days to show support for the grieving community, which is also facing the looming threat of wildfires raging throughout the region.
Fishing for capelin is a popular activity in this part of Quebec’s North Shore. It is done on the banks of the river using scoops rather than fishing lines. Capelin most often roll at night, so people light a fire on the shore and wait.
Portneuf-sur-Mer Mayor Jean-Maurice Tremblay said local residents were first on the scene and were able to assist in the rescue.
Mr. Tremblay said the sandbank where the group went fishing can become partially submerged by the tides. He said the group appeared to have been caught off guard by the rising tide.
“There was little or no possibility of returning to their starting point, so they were like prisoners,” the mayor said in a phone interview. He said it was unclear why the victims could not stay put on the part of the sandbank that was still above water.
A Canadian Hydrographic Service tidal station in Portneuf-sur-Mer had predicted the high tide would reach 4.1 metres around 2 a.m. Saturday.
Police said they have launched an investigation into the incident.
Portneuf-sur-Mer resident Robert Kennedy said he regularly sees people going on a sandbank in front of his home to fish capelin at night during this time of the year. Mr. Kennedy, 82, said he had never heard of any accidents before and has himself been fishing there many times, but added that it could still be dangerous.
“When the tide rises, if it’s a 13-foot [3.9-metre] tide like last night, it can be dangerous … you cannot come back when the tide is high,” he said in a phone interview.
Patricia Lavoie, a spokesperson for the Estuaire School Service Centre, said the four children attended three of its schools.
“We are in small communities, and a tragedy like this has great impacts on a wide range of young people beyond the families directly affected, but also on staff members,” Ms. Lavoie said.
She said about 15 support workers would be available at the local schools on Monday morning to help students deal with the tragedy. More professionals would be brought in from the local health services if needed, she added.
With a report from Canadian Press