12/17/2014 11:27 EST | Updated 02/16/2015 05:59 EST

L'Isle-Verte Seniors' Home Was Locked With Special Latch, Owner Says

One of the owners of the L'Isle-Verte seniors' home that burned down last January says he installed a special "latch" on the front door to keep residents with dementia inside.

The locked door prevented people from evacuating the Résidence du Havre the night of the deadly fire that killed 32.

Roch Bernier, 56, told the coroner investigating the fire that he installed the lock on the inside door because more than two residents had been found wandering outside in the past.

While a second door to the lobby unlocked automatically when the fire alarm went off, the first had to be unlocked manually.

Bernier's co-owner, Irène Plante, is also scheduled to testify.

Bernier told the coroner, "We never told our people that if the fire alarm went off, to take off the latch." He also said the sole employee on duty that night, Bruno Bélanger, had never practised an evacuation exercise in his three years on the job.

Bernier said Bélanger always had an excuse, and Bernier accepted them.

Emergency plan

Contrary to the seniors' home’s own emergency plan, Bernier did not immediately call 911, and did not help anyone get out.

“He would have gone back if there hadn’t been so much smoke," said Bernier. "The first step was to wake up Madame Plante."

Bernier said Bélanger did that.

There were more than 50 residents at the home the night of the fire. The home’s own emergency plan required two people to help during an evacuation.

Bernier said he considered Plante the second person on duty that night, even though she was sleeping. 

Lawyers drop seniors' home co-owners

Plante and 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 could have lowered the death toll.

But Radio-Canada has learned the lawyers representing them have dropped them as clients.

Well-known Quebec City lawyer Guy Bertrand and his daughter Dominique Bertrand had been intervening on behalf of Bernier and Plante.

Earlier today, a woman who had applied to work as a night guard and orderly in 1998 testified she was offered $2-an-hour.

Guylaine Larrivée, 54, said it seemed "possible" to offer that amount because she was also told she could "relax and sleep" during her shift.

Coroner Cyrille Delage is expected to wrap up the hearings on Thursday.

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