POLITICS

Local fire chief grilled at coroner's inquest into tragedy at seniors' home

11/25/2014 02:20 EST | Updated 01/25/2015 05:59 EST
RIVIERE-DU-LOUP, Que. - The fire chief in the Quebec town of L'Isle-Verte has defended his decisions and his team's work in fighting a blaze at a seniors' home last January that killed 32 people.

"We have full-time jobs," Yvan Charron said Tuesday during his appearance at a coroner's inquest into the tragedy.

Charron, a farmer, said he called in reinforcements only after arriving at the Residence du Havre — 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's the modus operandi used by L'Isle-Verte's fire service.

Charron testified he was expecting to find the building's residents outside when he arrived, a statement he based on an evacuation exercise a few years earlier.

While that one was conducted in the daytime and with the assistance of employees, the blaze last Jan. 23 eruped shortly after midnight.

Charron also admitted he did not think those inside would have been asleep or that they could possibly have been on medication.

The fire chief did not set up a command post when he arrived on the scene, stating that his priority was to save people.

Charron testified that before help arrived from other firehalls, he had time to help some residents get out of the building.

"I was in control," he said.

Coroner Cyrille Delage, who has been presiding over the inquest, appeared irritated.

"If there was no co-ordination, the firefighters became part of the problem rather than the solution," he said.

Charron was also questioned by Dominique Bertrand, the lawyer for the owners of the seniors' residence.

She again tried to find out why the fire chief decided not to call for additional help before arriving on the scene.

"I did not understand his response," Bertrand said, justifying repetition of the question.

"Me neither," quipped Delage.

Normand Morin, the fire chief for the nearby municipality of Saint-Eloi, testified he was surprised to see L'Isle-Verte firefighters working without masks.

He said he always puts on his breathing apparatus so he can stay inside a burning building longer and save more people.

Questions were also raised about Charron's training.

He had never undergone his officer training, while several of his firefighters did not take courses to update their qualifications.

They were not required to do so because they were exempt under a grandfather clause in a new law.

The coroner again appeared annoyed when he heard about the differences in the training among the team's voluntary firefighters.

Some were able to carry out certain tasks, but not others.

On Monday, police officers testified it was chaotic when they arrived and that they took it upon themselves to try to save lives and evacuate the building, entering several times without being properly equipped.

The inquest continues Wednesday.