Skip to main content

Emergency workers search through the frozen rubble of a seniors residence Friday, Jan. 24, 2014 in L'Isle-Verte, Que.RYAN REMIORZ/The Canadian Press

The challenges of fire investigations and death inquiries are made infinitely harder by the presence of extreme cold and ice, as workers are finding at Résidence du Havre, a seniors' home in L'Isle-Verte, Que., destroyed by fire on Thursday. The Globe and Mail asked experts about those challenges.

Understanding the archeology

"Fire investigations are almost an archeological process," says Chris Williams, assistant deputy fire marshal in the Ontario Fire Marshal's Office. "You're de-layering. You may have a wall, a ceiling, a second floor, the remains of a third floor – all having collapsed systematically as the structural integrity is compromised during a fire. You may have a deceased person who has fallen out of bed or is still in bed. When things collapse, it does so in a sequence. You have to understand that sequence to understand what happened first."

Telling the story

"It's not just recovering the victim; it's understanding the context of the victim within the debris and understanding the debris within the context of collapse," Mr. Williams says. "It tells you a story." Those who were close to where the fire started may have severe burn injuries; those farther from its origins are more likely to have died from smoke inhalation. "All of these factors are important for the coroner but also for the fire investigator."

Melting the ice

Thousands of gallons of water were used to "surround and drown" the fire. Now, any structures that remain standing resemble ice palaces. And bodies would be encased in ice. A portable high-pressure steamer is being used to melt ice as thick as 30 centimetres, Mr. Williams says. Warm-weather methods of finding bodies, such as the use of specially trained dogs, are not available. "You're essentially warming the environment with water vapour," Mr. Williams says. "Water on water – you're not going to be introducing any foreign elements. In the absence of warming, you're working with almost a solid matrix. If you're breaking open that matrix, you won't be able to extract the evidence that might be there. You definitely want to work in a thawed environment. Otherwise you're almost hacking away at stone."

Keeping workers warm

Three teams of 10 to 20 people (forensic technicians, firefighters, police, members of the coroner's office and laboratory workers) traded 45-minute shifts, as wind-chill temperatures reached about -35. Workers have built hoardings and have brought heating equipment in to make it possible to work for longer periods without having to go inside to warm up, said Geneviève Guilbault, a spokeswoman for the Quebec coroner's office.

Melting ice, recovering bodies for as long as it takes

It's slow work. "So many things could happen that we can't plan on," Lieutenant Guy Lapointe of the Sûreté du Québec provincial police said. "The cold is extreme, the equipment could freeze, we could run into other issues. So at this time it's difficult for me to give a timetable."

And then the hardest part …

"Maintaining an emotional environment where you're very precise, very methodical, balanced against the urgency of people wanting to know their victims have been recovered," Mr. Williams says. "You have to preserve, protect, gather and document evidence. People want to know their loved ones have been accounted for, identified and recovered. You have to do all this in an environment that doesn't allow you to do it quickly. Many different agencies and forums will second-guess your movements. Those questions are going to be asked for days and months and years to come."