Pierre Surprenant was born in Montreal on Oct. 2, 1956. He was the only son of Ghislaine, a sales manager, and Henri, a firefighter. Pierre was destined to be a fireman. Even as a youngster he was determined to put out fires, says his stepbrother, Francois Masse. One day when Pierre was about 7, he made a mound of toast for the family, which, by then, included his little sister, Sylvie. When a piece of bread in the toaster caught fire, “He ran to his room to grab his toy fire truck,” says Francois. Then, with the toy’s bell ringing, he ran all the way back to the kitchen and unplugged the toaster.
In school, Pierre was well-liked and sociable, a joker from the start. When he was in the first grade, his teacher once asked him to “take the door” (meaning leave the room) for a minor infraction, says Masse. But Pierre replied like a fireman. “He said, ‘I can’t. I don’t have a screwdriver.’ ” As a youngster, Pierre liked to visit his father at the Montreal fire department and watch the firefighters in action at fire scenes. Although policemen tried to wave him away, the firefighters let him stand near their massive red trucks.
Pierre’s parents divorced when he was about 15, and his father’s second marriage brought him two younger stepbrothers, Francois and Stéphane, and a stepsister, Isabelle. In his teens, Pierre liked to drive around Montreal in his green Mustang with his sister Sylvie and stepbrother Francois. They listened to police scanners and followed the dispatches to the sites of fires. It was normal for them to stay out as late as 2 a.m. chasing blazes, says Masse.
It was no surprise to his family when Pierre joined the Canadian Forces at 18 and began training as a military firefighter. Besides being very safety conscious and sturdy — at over six feet, Pierre was “strong as a bull,” says close friend and retired Ottawa firefighter Georges Potvin — Pierre’s military training made him especially disciplined and gave him an expert knowledge of fire equipment. In his 40s, Pierre moved to the fire department of the Ottawa International Airport. In the mid-’90s, he was in charge of ordering equipment for every municipal fire department in Quebec. Though he always loved to talk about firefighting, Pierre rarely spoke about any of his own experiences, says Francois. “He was very humble.”
Pierre’s love for firefighting was steadfast, but his personal life went through several transitions. In the early ’80s, he married his first wife, Jocelyne, and had a son, Dominique. The marriage was short-lived. Pierre had two more sons, Pierre-Marc and Simon, with his second wife, Sylvie — a marriage that also ended in divorce. Pierre went through an especially hard time eight years ago after his stepbrother Stéphane died of cancer. He married a third time and gained a stepson, Miguel, who died in a motor vehicle accident about two years ago. Pierre and his third wife became estranged.
Still, a stroke of luck led Pierre to discover a passion that encompassed his later life. In a Bytown Fire Brigade fundraiser, Pierre won a bright red 1909 Ford Model T — a fire chief’s car — in a raffle. “He said, ‘Gee whiz, wouldn’t I like to have an old fire chief’s carsomeday?’ and doesn’t he win this one?” says Potvin. “It was in the cards.” Pierre was inspired to collect three old fire engines and dedicate countless hours to restoring them. He was especially proud of his two Thibault fire trucks because they were made by a family-owned Quebec company. From the siren to the tires and the screws — every detail he worked on had to be just right. Pierre was also one of the founding board members of the Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation. In 2004, at its first ceremony in Ottawa, he rang the fire bell in honour of all the country’s lost fighters.
Last year, Pierre retired as fire chief of the Ottawa airport, but he didn’t leave firefighting. Instead, he began to teach at the fire academy in Mirabel, Que., and every Wednesday he met with fellow aficionados to discuss the progress they were making on restoring their antique vehicles. He also moved from Gatineau to the Montreal area to live with his partner, Diane Joly.
On Sun., Aug. 3, Pierre drove his 1960 Thibault fire engine to Syracuse, N.Y., with the Model T in tow, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Society for the Preservation and Appreciation of Antique Motor Fire Apparatus in America. On the way home that afternoon, near the Ogdensburg-Prescott International Bridge, a rear tire went flat. A New York State trooper stopped to help. When they extended the truck’s ladder to distribute the weight away from the flat, it touched a high-voltage power line. Both men died instantly. Pierre was 51.