RIVIERE-DU-LOUP, Que. — No criminal charges will be laid in the fire that killed 32 people at a seniors’ residence in Quebec nearly two years ago, the Crown announced Monday.
The decision came after provincial police submitted a report into the January 2014 tragedy in L’Isle-Verte, in eastern Quebec.
“In light of the expert and witness testimony that was heard and the evidence gathered by investigators, the DPCP (the Crown) is not able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a criminal act was ever committed — be it during the night of Jan. 23, or in the days, weeks and months that followed,” Crown prosecutor Annie Landreville told a news conference in Riviere-du-Loup.
The cause of the blaze is still unknown, although it has been established it began in the kitchen before quickly spreading.
Testimony at a coroner’s inquest into the tragedy revealed the main doors to the Residence du Havre were locked, with witnesses to the fire describing a horror-filled night as residents begged to be saved as flames engulfed them.
The inquest also heard from Yvan Charron, who was then L’Isle-Verte’s fire chief.
Charron said he called in reinforcements only after arriving at the seniors’ home — or 19 minutes after the first distress call — even though a 911 dispatcher had told him residents were stuck inside the burning building and couldn’t see anything because of thick smoke.
He said he only requested help from neighbouring municipalities after arriving at the scene because that was the modus operandi used by L’Isle-Verte’s fire service.
Landreville said there just wasn’t sufficient evidence to warrant charges being laid.
“Neither the people present that night when the fire began, nor the owners nor those who intervened can be considered to have been negligent according to the norms required in criminal matters,” she said.
Coroner Cyrille Delage’s report last February cited a lack of training and of emergency plans as some of the reasons so many people died.
Roch Bernier, co-owner of the home, rejected responsibility last April for the fatal blaze and said Delage unjustly targeted the managers and staff at the home, in particular night watchman Bruno Belanger.
A relieved Belanger welcomed Monday’s news.
“I’m really sick of hearing about this,” he told reporters. “Like you couldn’t believe. Every time I step out the door, I feel psychologically targeted. And I’m tired of that. I’m tired of being a target I didn’t choose to be.
“I’ll have to live with that until I die — not the acts, there weren’t any — but the event will be on my mind for the rest of my days.”
The Quebec government announced after the report was released it would be mandatory for all existing private seniors’ homes to be equipped with automatic sprinklers.
The province said operators would be given a five-year grace period to retrofit their homes.
Under Quebec’s old rules, sprinklers were only mandatory in seniors’ residences where the occupants are not mobile.
Only part of the 17-year-old Residence du Havre contained sprinklers and many occupants needed wheelchairs or walkers to get around.
An expansion to the three-storey, 52-unit facility was built in 2002 and the sprinklers in the new part of the building triggered the alarm.