POLITICS

Fatal seniors' blaze: employee didn't know evacuation drill

12/17/2014 04:00 EST | Updated 02/15/2015 05:59 EST
RIVIERE-DU-LOUP, Que. - A co-owner of the Quebec seniors' home that caught fire last January, killing 32 people, testified Wednesday the only employee working that night didn't know the evacuation drill.

Roch Bernier told a coroner's inquest into the tragedy he had not trained either of his two night employees on the residence's emergency evacuation plan.

The staffer working the night of the blaze, Bruno Belanger, decided to wake up the other co-owner, Irene Plante, instead of immediately helping to usher seniors outside to safety, he told coroner Cyrille Delage.

Bernier said "one employee cannot do everything" but added that his choice to staff just a single night guard is legal.

Testimony heard in November revealed that the main doors to the residence were locked and people died trapped in the burning Residence du Havre in L'Isle-Verte as would-be rescuers looked on helplessly.

Bernier justified Belanger's decision to awaken Plante instead of helping the seniors by claiming the evacuation would have been more efficient with two people instead of one.

The residence housed 52 elderly people, including many who couldn't move around without the use of a walker or wheelchair.

The inquest's lawyer, Marie Cossette, said Belanger's decision cost precious minutes that could have been used to help some of the people who eventually died.

She asked Bernier if his employee could have called Plante instead.

He replied that Belanger did have access to a phone but decided to get her in person.

Plante also testified at the inquest Wednesday, with her comments contradicting Bernier's.

Bernier testified that the two keys to the locked front doors of the residence were in his office.

Plante told the inquest, however, she had one of the keys on her the night of the fire but, in a panic, forgot she had it.

She was reminded on Wednesday she had told police in the moments after the fire she had tried to open the main doors but that the lock was frozen.

Plante replied that both versions were true because she had tried to open another door with the key.

Plante said that even though she had been awoken by Belanger, she did not help evacuate the residence because the smoke from the fire was too thick.

Earlier on Wednesday a woman testified that Bernier offered her $2 an hour to work the night shift at the residence and that he said she could sleep on the job if she got tired.

Guylaine Larivee told Delage she refused Bernier's offer.

The inquest sat for six days in November and heard from various people, including firefighters, eyewitnesses and senior citizens who lived at the Residence du Havre.

Delage was also told by one witness that by the time he saw the first firefighter "it was already too late" for those in the residence.

It is not clear whether testimony will continue Thursday.