11/18/2014 02:03 EST | Updated 01/18/2015 05:59 EST

L'Isle Verte Fire Coroner's Inquest Hears Initial Scene Was One Of Chaos

RIVIERE-DU-LOUP, Que. - A fire-safety co-ordinator who arrived at a Quebec seniors' home as it was burning last January described a scene of chaos while 32 people were engulfed by the flames raging within.

Christian Chenard-Guay told a coroner's inquest on Tuesday he reached the scene at 1 a.m. on Jan. 23, nearly 40 minutes after the first alert at the Residence du Havre in L'Isle-Verte.

No command post or evacuation measures had been put in place and the few firefighters on the scene were scattered about, Chenard-Guay told coroner Cyrille Lepage.

Chenard-Guay works for the MRC Riviere-du-Loup, a regional grouping of 13 eastern Quebec communities, including L'Isle-Verte.

While he had no position of command that night, Chenard-Guay turned up in support, given the scale of the tragedy.

The man in charge was Yvan Charron, head of the fire department in L'Isle-Verte, which has a population of about 1,500 people.

"I didn't see too many firefighters and things hadn't really swung into gear," Chenard-Guay told the inquest, which continues Wednesday before resuming next Monday.

He said Charron's team was trying in vein to put out the inferno, although there was not much more that could be done to save the building's older wing, which was made of wood and had no sprinklers.

Many of the occupants in the 52-unit building were over 85 and all but a handful had limited movement, being confined to wheelchairs and walkers.

Delage is expected to hear testimony from more than 50 witnesses 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.

Chenard-Guay was later cross-examined by Pierre Duquette, the lawyer for the town of L'Isle-Verte, who tried to portray as futile the trial evacuations Chenard-Guay supervised in 2012 and 2013.

Duquette cited the example of eight people with limited mobility who lived on the second and third floor of the Residence du Havre and who were unable to flee the burning building.

In the tests, the residents had been able to get out within eight minutes.

"Were you confident this scenario could be repeated?" Duquette asked him.

Chenard-Guay responded: "We only act as observers."

Duquette also referred to a message sent by Residence du Havre co-owner Irene Plante seven minutes after the initial alert. In it, she says the evacuation had not yet begun.

"I can never predict stress management in the heat of the action and whether people are capable of responding," said Chenard-Guay.

"There are no guarantees."

Chenard-Guay said Charron should have called earlier for backup from neighbouring municipalities instead of waiting 19 minutes after the alert.

The inquest heard that an agreement had come into effect last Jan. 1 aimed at allowing several municipalities, including L'Isle-Verte, to have a system of automatic mutual aid in case of fires.

The system never really got going by Jan. 23, with Chenard-Guay saying Charron wanted to keep his autonomy even though he didn't want to block the project.

Delage has 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 Plante and Roch Bernier 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.

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