On the lives lost in L’Isle-Verte

Martin Patriquin on one of the biggest human catastrophes in recent Quebec history

Ryan Remiorz / CP

Ryan Remiorz / CP

The newer wing of the Residence du Havre in the Quebec village of L’Isle-Verte is a master stroke of vinyl-sided architectural banality. Built in 2005, it is the kind of building where you’d expect to find university students, or first-time condo dwellers. Until a fire ravaged the older section of the facility, killing an estimated 32 of its residents, it housed seniors. The old section of the building is nothing but ashes and rubble; the new section still stands in all its unassuming glory. If you close one eye, you could almost convince yourself it wasn’t the centre of one of the biggest human catastrophes in recent Quebec history.

Shortly after midnight on a recent Thursday morning, firefighters, paramedics and family members pulled out of sleep by the sirens rushed into the newer wing of the building and carried the residents out into the frigid night air. It was -25° C outside, yet the residents barely needed blankets, so hot was the fire consuming the wing directly to the east.

L’Isle Verte’s 18-member volunteer firefighter corps arrived within eight minutes. By then, the older wing was nearly gone, the vast majority of its residents trapped inside. A few managed to escape by jumping off balconies. Jean-Eudes Fraser raced to the site to rescue his mother, but his ladder was too short to reach her third-storey apartment. She died in front of his eyes. Dozens of victims remain unidentified.

Only a metre-thick concrete firewall saved residents in the newer section from almost certain death. Firefighters fought the blaze, then spent the following days pulling body parts out of the ice.

There was a cruel logic to who lived and who died in the fire. Those in the affected section of the building were “autonomous,” the clinical term denoting a person’s relative ability to eat and clean oneself. Those in the newer section were “semi-autonomous,” meaning staff had to help residents with most of their humanly needs.

When it came to who did and didn’t lose a loved one, that cruel logic gave way to arbitrary chance. At Le Barillet, L’Isle-Verte’s main motel and restaurant located no more than 60 m from the site of the fire, waitress Véronique Dionne found out at 5:30 a.m. that her grandmother, Lorette Fillion, had been rescued from her room in the new section of the Residence du Havre. Her colleague Annick Ouellet, working in the kitchen on the same 18-hour shift as Fillion, lost her grandparents. They’d only been there for two months, and were deemed autonomous because they didn’t need constant nursing care. Though there was still no official word two days after the fire, Ouellet knew they were gone.

Seven of the 20 people rescued from Residence du Havre, including Lorette Fillion, were spirited 20 km down the highway to Trois-Pistoles. At 2:30 a.m. on Thursday morning, while the fire was still burning in L’Isle Verte, Daniel Lessard received a call from the hospital in Trois-Pistoles. For 24 years, Lessard has owned Villa des Basques, a 115-bed facility located, like Residence du Havre, steps away from the St. Lawrence River. Hospital staff wanted to know if he had any space for the rescued. “We did,” Lessard said. “By chance, we had eight deaths in December,” Lessard says.

Three of the rescued Residence du Havre residents were put in the Villa des Basque’s semi-autonomous wing, located in the facility’s basement. It’s an old-school type of place, where the staff of 15 still fills out activity logs by hand in spiral notebooks, and the only apparent nod to modernity is a flat-screen TV mounted in the reception area. Five residents sit in a line in the hallway behind their walkers, mostly indifferent to that TV. A short, smiling 80-year-old woman suddenly bursts into tears. “Why hasn’t the good Lord taken me yet?” she asks a visitor.

Sitting two chairs down from her, Amédé Fraser (no relation to Jean-Eudes) is certainly more positive. Fraser, who must be in his late 80s, can only smile from his recliner. He’d only been at the Residence du Havre since September; he was placed in the newer wing because he needed nursing care.

“I went to bed early, maybe 8:30,” Fraser says of the night before the fire, his voice slurred from a long-ago stroke. “I didn’t smell smoke, didn’t see the fire right away. All of a sudden, two men from the home came in, picked me up and brought me outside. There was smoke on the first floor.” Fraser grew up in L’Isle-Verte. Before that night, he’d never lived anywhere else.

Down the hall, Lorette Fillion, 90, woke up in a bed in Villa des Basques the morning after, unable to remember who rescued her or how she got there. “I’ll just tell you lies,” the small woman under many blankets says, when asked. Upon hearing about the fire, her daughter Marie-Luce Dionne rushed from Campbellton, N.B., to be with her mother. Lorette Fillion, her daughter says, lost three of her six children to sickness. “I like to think they were looking down on her that night,” Dionne says.

Andrée Basette, the third rescuee from L’Isle-Verte, is across the hall in her new room, wheelchair-bound, nodding in and out of sleep. “My son rescued me,” she whispers. “I’m lucky.” Her son put her in an ambulance, and she wound up here. Lunch is announced: bologna or fillet of sole. Basette is asleep again.

Daniel Lessard, Villa des Basques owner, was happy to place the Havre residents, and thoroughly unhappy with the treatment given his fellow residence owners in the aftermath of the fire. “We’ve been demonized in the press,” he says. “Everyone is blaming us. It’s rough. We do what we can with what we have.”

To be sure, the Residence du Havre in L’Isle-Verte has a good reputation. The congregation at the village chapel stood and cheered when Roch Bernier, who owns the residence with his ex-wife, Irène Plante, stood to make an impromptu speech during a Sunday-morning remembrance ceremony.

“It was beautiful,” Roger Chenard, who lost a friend in the blaze, says of Residence Du Havre. His mother lived there until she died a few years ago. “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.”

Politicizing began practically before the fire was fully extinguished. As in most provinces, Quebec doesn’t compel existing retirement homes to be retrofitted with sprinklers. Nor does it dictate what building materials must be used in their construction—which, in the case of the older section of Residence du Havre, was almost entirely wood. Half of the province’s private care retirement homes are in the same predicament as Residence du Havre, according to a La Presse tabulation of provincial statistics. In a vexing twist, L’Isle-Verte fire chief Yvon Charron said he heard rushing water through the door in the firewall, and thought the old section had sprinklers. Yet a public security official, who spoke to Maclean’s on the condition of anonymity, said the water Charron heard was probably from feeder pipes running through the old section to the new.

Quebec Health Minister Réjean Hébert says sprinkler regulations are on the way, but aren’t a magic solution. “If it were that easy, we would have already done it,” he said during a press conference in L’Isle Verte.

Intentionally or not, Hébert highlighted a looming issue far bigger than construction materials and sprinkler systems. More than 1.3 million Quebecers, roughly 16 per cent of the province, are age 65 and older—a number expected to rise to 27 per cent by 2030, according to provincial government statistics. Yet the number of private and public seniors’ residences has actually decreased by 280, to 2,005, between 2007 and today, according to data from the province’s health ministry.

The issue of aging populations is all the more acute in isolated places like L’Isle-Verte, where more than half the population is 50 and older. Its second-biggest demographic is 85 and older, and its median age is 11 years older than that of Quebec’s, according to Statistics Canada. The village high school closed last spring; there simply weren’t enough students to justify it.

In L’Isle-Verte, as the slow, grinding cleanup continues, demographic concerns are far from mind. In a process expected to take days, if not weeks, and what coroner spokesperson Geneviève Guilbault described as a “body recovery” mission, workers melt the thick ice with hot air blowers and remove wheelchairs, walkers and other necessities from a different lifetime. Then a line of police crawl on their knees through the rubble. It’s akin to an archaeological dig; each handful of muddy dirt is sifted through and examined. When found, human remains are carefully extracted, tagged and sent to Montreal for DNA testing. Soon, someone’s family would learn what they already know.

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