When the Quebec seniors' home he was living in became non-smoking several years ago, Paul-Étienne Michaud began taking cigarette breaks in an old minivan he had parked outside.
Now the 96-year-old's long-time habit has contributed to rumours that his own cigarette might be the cause of a deadly fire at the Résidence du Havre. Mr. Michaud's name spread quickly through the small town of L'Isle-Verte in the days after the blaze, and initial media reports suggesting the fire broke out in room 206 – later identified by a staff member as an empty room directly beside Mr. Michaud's – furthered the speculation.
Mr. Michaud is among 32 people believed to have perished in last week's fire. The rumours have left his grieving family struggling to cope with media requests and police inquiries in recent days.
"It's going to be a terrible burden if it turns out he started the fire, but I don't believe it," Mr. Michaud's son, Jean-André Michaud, said 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."
Investigators say they have not determined the cause of the blaze and insist the theory that it was started by a cigarette is just one of the possibilities they are exploring. An electrical room also circulated as a possible source in early reporting on the fire.
Nicole Bélanger, who worked at the seniors' home for the past four years, said she knows of just two residents who smoked: Mr. Michaud, who lived in room 208, and Claude Fraser, who lived further down the hall on the same floor.
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.
Speaking at a press conference in L'Isle-Verte on Monday, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois urged residents and the media not to rush to conclusions about the cause of the fire.
"Let's wait for the results of the inquiry. Rumours don't help anyone, or blaming this or that person, it's not the time for that," she said. "This is a time to act in a rigorous, scientific fashion."