Roger Chenard and his wife Hélène first met Denise Drouin when the couple moved to L’Isle-Verte in 1981. The couple moved into a house across the street from Drouin and her husband, and instantly bonded over their pets: both had a cat and a dog. Roger and Hélène soon found themselves talking for hours with Drouin on their porch; an older lady—they were never sure of her exact age—she was heavily involved as a volunteer in the tiny village of 1,300 people.
Drouin and her husband had two daughters. “Their daughters called us uncle and aunt,” Hélène says. “My own mother called Denise was a second mother.”
Fifteen years ago, Drouin’s husband died. Two years ago, she moved to the Residence du Havre. Roger’s own mother had been there until she died a few years ago. “It was beautiful. The main hall was surrounded by glass. It was sunny, the views were amazing. At other places we looked at, all the activities took place in the basement,” he says.
On Thursday, when fire destroyed half the residence in a matter of a few minutes, Roger and Hélène held out hope, like everyone else. On Thursday morning they went to the local school gymnasium, converted into a sort of triage area for families seeking information about their loved ones. Drouin’s name wasn’t on the list of roughly 20 people rescued from the flames. Someone told them there were more survivors at the hospital in Rivière-du-Loup, 30 km away. They went. Drouin wasn’t there.
Sitting at a table in a quiet café in L’Isle-Verte, Roger sighs. “She died right around here,” says Roger, pointing to a picture in the Journal de Québec of ice-encrusted remains of the residence. The spot is on the end of the burned building, and marked by twisted, frozen metal.
The couple last saw Drouin 10 days ago, on one of their regular visits to her room. “A lot of people who are brought to home are forgotten. They need to be visited. Five minutes is a lifetime for them.”
Sitting across from her husband, Hélène begins to cry. “The emotions are coming out the day after,” she says. “We went to the scene a couple hours after the fire. You see a guy there who’s looking for his mother, and you realize that you knew her too. It’s like layers of shock hitting you.”
Across the street, behind police tape and below a circling police helicopter, the slow and dreadful cleanup continues. Last night, coroner spokesperson Geneviève Guilbault referred to the effort as a “body recovery” mission. Bodies, wheelchairs and furniture are encased in thick layers of ice; workers are using hot air to melt through the ice to preserve the human remains below. As well, firefighters could be seen chainsawing through the detritus, throwing chairs, pieces of metal and ripped aluminum siding into a burned-out gazebo on the site. “It is a very nasty scene because of the ice and the falling building,” said Lt. Guy Lapointe of the Sûreté du Québec.
It’s also jarring. Mere feet away from the disaster stands the modern wing of the residence, totally untouched. Earlier today, the SQ said the number of confirmed dead now stands at eight, with roughly 27 still missing. The owners of the home, who were reportedly treated for shock after the incident, recently published a press release through a public relations firm.
“For Mr. Bernier and Ms. Plante, as owners of the Résidence Le Havre and members of the community, this event was very emotional. They want to assure the population of L’Isle-Verte that all efforts will be devoted to helping and co-operating with the authorities who are investigating and helping victims,” the statement read in part.