L’ISLE-VERTE, Que. – A son struggling to deal with his father’s death in a fatal fire has been forced to assume another burden: that some people in the community believe his dad’s cigarette may have sparked the inferno.
Police said Saturday that 10 people are dead and another 22 residents were still missing after the fast-moving blaze consumed the Residence du Havre in the tiny Quebec community of L’Isle-Verte.
Jean-Andre Michaud’s father, Paul-Etienne, 96, was among those who vanished in Thursday’s fire and are believed to be entombed in mounds of rubble and thick slabs of ice.
But as Jean-Andre, 68, tries to mourn the loss of his dad, people in the community have begun to believe one of his father’s cigarettes may have triggered the disaster.
He has faced questions about this possibility from police investigators and journalists. A media report has also led the town, including members of his extended family, to believe it all began with the cherry of his father’s cigarette.
TVA quoted the building’s night watchman on Friday as saying he believes the blaze was caused by a lit cigarette in the section of the building where Paul-Etienne Michaud lived.
An emotional Jean-Andre Michaud said in an interview Saturday at his farmhouse that he’s not buying the argument his father might have started the fire, even though he acknowledged his dad was, at times, a determined smoker.
“My father smoked a bit, but would he get up in the middle of the night to go for a smoke?” he said as a tear rolled down his cheek inside the house where his father was born, just outside town. “No, it’s impossible… It would be a bitter pill to swallow to start saying, ‘Look, your father started the fire’…
“It’s not my father, leave me in peace, damn it.”
Jean-Andre Michaud discussed his father’s lifelong smoking habit, which he said only amounted to about a pack of cigarettes per week.
But he also described how his father, well-known in the family for his stubborn streak, would sometimes go to great lengths to get his fix.
He said his dad had been caught lighting up inside the seniors’ residence a couple of times shortly after the building became smoke-free a few years back.
Jean-Andre Michaud also said his dad had his own makeshift smoking shack in the residence’s parking lot: an old, rusted jalopy.
In colder weather, he said, his father would climb into his beat-up, undrivable minivan to smoke. The vehicle became a more-permanent fixture last summer after his son removed two of its wheels, so that his licence-less, elderly father could no longer take it for rides around town.
“You can see that the windows are pretty much tinted (from the tobacco stains),” Jean-Andre Michaud said of the minivan.
An employee at the residence told The Canadian Press she often saw Paul-Etienne Michaud, who lived at the home since its 1997 opening, head out to the lot to smoke in his vehicle.
The staffer said the elder Michaud was one of only two smokers she was aware of who lived in the building.
The employee also shed some light on details that emerged during the TVA interview with the building’s night watchman, Bruno Belanger.
Belanger said the fire started in Room 206.
The employee, however, said the room had been empty since December, when the last tenant moved to another part of the residence.
Jean-Andre Michaud said his father lived in Room 208 and that he had been there for several years.
“My father was in 208, damn it, not in 206 — and people are saying the fire started in 206,” he said.
Jean-Andre added that the confusion over the room numbers had led people to believe his father’s cigarette was to blame. He was not specifically asked about the possibility of whether the vacant Room 206 could have been used as a discreet smoking area.
Meanwhile, other family members have discussed the possibility among themselves that one of their own might be connected to the fire, said Paul-Etienne Michaud’s niece.
Lucie Michaud, who lives in the neighbouring village of St-Eloi, said immediately after she heard about the tragedy she thought something as banal as a cigarette could be the cause.
It wasn’t long after that when she thought of her uncle.
“My uncle was probably, as I was saying, smoking secretly in the room,” she said at her house along the hamlet’s main street.
“He wanted to smoke one last one before going to bed, but it was his last one.”
But she came to the defence of her family and her uncle, whom she said had become quite forgetful in recent years and didn’t even recognize her when she saw him for the last time in the summer.
She said if her uncle’s cigarette truly caused the blaze it would have been just a terrible mistake.
“At this age, he was not even aware that what he was doing could cause harm,” she said.
“You can’t dishonour a family based on someone who was not even aware of what he was doing.”
Lucie Michaud said provincial police investigators phoned her house in hope of tracking down her uncle’s relatives, including Jean-Andre Michaud.
Jean-Andre Michaud said the officers came to the family dairy farm to ask about his father’s smoking habit.
“The police asked me if he smoked and things like that,” said Jean-Andre Michaud, one of three surviving siblings out of his father’s seven children.
Police, however, refused to say Saturday if they thought a resident’s cigarette might have ignited the fire, as they fielded reporters’ questions on the subject.
“For us right now there are a few hypotheses that we’re looking at — what was mentioned in the media (Friday) is one of them,” Lt. Guy Lapointe said in an interview.
“But it’s not the only one, and for us right now, it’s really too early to state that the cause of the fire was a cigarette.”
Jean-Andre Michaud said it would be another burden for the grieving family if, in fact, authorities determine that his father’s cigarette started the fire.
“It’s the way he went and they haven’t even found him yet,” he said, adding he hopes his dad’s death is confirmed soon.
“I would have at least like to be told that he’s gone.”