11/26/2014 02:01 EST | Updated 01/26/2015 05:59 EST

L'Isle-Verte rescue effort was 'free for all,' witness says

A witness to the deadly fire at a seniors' residence in L'Isle-Verte, Que., in January of this year that killed 32 people, told a coroner’s inquest that the scene was a "free for all."

The inquest, which started on Nov 17 in Rivière-du-Loup, was ordered by Public Security Minister Lise Thériault to examine the cause of each of the 32 victims as wel as thed etails surrounding the fire at the RésidenceduHavre in January in the town of L'IsleVerte, Que.

Today is the last day of the inquest.

Pascal Paquin was driving on the highway past the RésidenceduHavre, around 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 23, when he saw smoke coming out of the building.

He pulled into the parking lot and ran to the front doors. Paquin said the second set of doors were locked.

He told coroner CyrilleDelâge he ran back to his car to get a flashlight and a balaclava. He found a ladder nearby and tried twice to rescue people from their balconies.

Paquin said his attempts were unsuccessful because the ladder was too short. At that point, he said rescue crews arrived.

“It was a free for all,” Paquin said of the rescue effort. “The first firefighter I saw wasn’t wearing an oxygen mask. I almost suffocated,” he said.

“There wasn’t one single firefighter who went around the building to see if anyone was in distress,” he said.

Residents describe how they survived

Two residents who survived the deadly fire also gave their accounts of what happened.

Conrad Morin, 89, had lived on the third floor of the residence for only a few months at the time of the fire. His 92-year-old wife, Eva Saindon, had been there for several years. She lived on the first floor. They both lived in the older section of the building.

Morin told the coroner he woke up coughing. He said when he went into the hallway, he heard several women screaming for help.

Due to thick smoke, the former firefighter decided his best chance was to go back to his room and escape from the balcony.

Using a bed sheet, Morin lowered himself part way and jumped. He woke the next morning in hospital, suffering from several fractures.

Morin's wife died in the fire.

ArnaudCôté, 84, who lived in the newer part of the building, saved three people the night of the fire.

Côté said he awoke to the sound of alarm bells. He knocked at the doors of three residents, telling them to dress warmly and follow him out.

He said he remembered wondering how many people would die that night.