POLITICS

Inquest begins into fire that killed 32 people at Quebec seniors' residence

11/17/2014 01:15 EST | Updated 01/17/2015 05:59 EST
RIVIERE-DU-LOUP, Que. - A spokeswoman for the Quebec agency that oversees building codes says she's not sure whether the seniors' residence where 32 people died in a blaze complied with fire-prevention regulations.

Coroner Cyrille Delage asked Lise Veilleux on Monday whether the building's older section, which was destroyed in last January's blaze, respected provincial regulations.

Testifying on the first day of Delage's inquest into the tragedy, Veilleux said that "appeared" to be the case, although the definition of compliance depended on whether residents in that part of the building could get around by themselves.

Many of the occupants in the 52-unit Residence du Havre in L'Isle-Verte were over 85 and all but a handful had limited movement, being confined to wheelchairs and walkers.

The older part of the building was built in 1997 and did not have an automatic sprinkler system, while the new wing did.

Delage is expected to hear testimony from more than 50 witnesses this week and next at the courthouse in Riviere-du-Loup, northeast of Quebec City.

His job will be to determine the cause of death of each of the 32 victims and the origin and likely causes of the fire.

The coroner expressed some frustration as Veilleux spoke about the various building-code regulations in place in the province.

"Does anyone understand these except you," Delage asked at one point. "How can you expect us to know what's going on?"

Richard Michaud, who lost relatives in the blaze, said he hopes the hearings will shed light on what exactly happened.

"We want conclusions so that such a tragedy doesn't occur again," he told reporters. "It's not about finding a culprit. I just want to know the circumstances surrounding the events."

Dominique Bertrand, a lawyer for the co-owners of the Residence du Havre, said it is important for people to know how their loved ones died.

"Thirty-two people died in horrible and tragic circumstances," she said in an interview. "It's essential that we do what we can to help avoid other such tragedies."

Delage said his goal is not to assign criminal blame.

Police last week sent their report to the Crown prosecutors' office, which will decide whether to lay charges.

Residence co-owners Roch Bernier and Irene Plante are part of a $3.8-million civil lawsuit against the town of L'Isle-Verte. The suit alleges the community failed to implement emergency plans which might have lowered the death toll.

An insurance company is also involved in the lawsuit and is seeking $2.3 million of the $3.8 million.

The fire stirred debate about whether Canada's seniors' homes are safe enough to prevent similar tragedies.

Under Quebec's existing rules, sprinklers are only mandatory in seniors' residences where the occupants are not mobile.

An expansion to the three-storey unit was built in 2002 and the sprinklers in the new part of the building triggered the alarm.

The Quebec government said in the wake of the tragedy it could make sprinklers compulsory in all private residences, regardless of who lives there.

The blaze broke out just after midnight on Jan. 23 on a particularly cold night that saw firefighters' work hampered by strong winds.

The freezing temperatures contrasted with the roaring flames that illuminated the night sky as firefighters poured gallons of water on the burning building.

As morning dawned, the burned section of the facility resembled a macabre ice palace. The structure was covered with huge icicles and sheets of ice, which firefighters said ranged from a few inches to as much as a foot thick.