Smoking may have started Quebec nursing home fire

Firefighters battle a fire at the Residence du Havre after a fire in L'Isle Verte, Quebec on...

Firefighters battle a fire at the Residence du Havre after a fire in L'Isle Verte, Quebec on Thursday Jan. 23, 2014. (STEVENS LEBLANC/QMI AGENCY)

QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:45 AM ET

L'ISLE-VERTE, Que. -- The Quebec nursing home inferno that killed at lease eight seniors and left dozens of others missing could have been caused by a cigarette, an important witness told QMI Agency.

Bruno Belanger, the overnight worker at Residence du Havre, was the only employee on duty when fire broke out in the building on Thursday morning.

Belanger spoke to QMI after he gave a statement to provincial police investigators.

Still in shock and keeping his distance from L'Ile-Verte, Que., where the disaster happened, Belanger said he was "95% sure" the fire was smoking-related.

Less than an hour before the fire alarm went off, Belanger said he prevented a resident from going outside to smoke a cigarette.

He said residents are not allowed out after 11 p.m. because the doors are locked from the outside.

Also concerned about the bitter cold, Belanger said he asked the elderly man to return to his room and wait until morning to have his smoke.

The orderly said he went to check on the man in his room a few minutes later, just to make sure, then went to the kitchen to prepare the next day's lunch.

Just after midnight, the horror began.

"The alarm went off," Belanger said. "The alarm central called me. People asked me if I need help, I said 'Yes, quick, quick, the fire started, it's urgent. Hurry!' I didn't know what to do."

Firefighters arrived quickly but couldn't do much against the raging inferno.

Belanger went up to the second floor and immediately noticed that the fire was centred around the elderly smoker's room.

"There was smoke above the door, which was still ajar," Belanger said. "Then I began to suffocate. It was black. I thought I would die there," he said in tears.

Within five minutes, the fire had already spread throughout the building.

Belanger says he tried to wake up as many people as he could but had to flee the building to survive.

On the way out, as screams echoed throughout the residence, he rescued one person who had broken a leg jumping from his balcony.

Belanger says several residents were medicated and might not even have woken up when the alarm sounded.

"I think about the horror of seeing them fight for their lives," Belanger said. "I think about this lady who was going to turn 100 years old. I don't know what she could have done. It's indescribable."

Roch Bernier and Irene Plante, owners of the Residence du Havre, offered their first comments on the tragedy late Friday, in a statement through a PR firm.

"(They) wish to offer their deepest sympathies to the families of victims who perished in the fire," the statement said.

They said they weren't sure if they would rebuild.

"They would rather put their energies into the relocation and well-being of survivors."

Firefighters continued the tough task Friday of searching for bodies, their efforts hampered by thick ice that coated the rubble following an all-night firefighting effort in -35 C.

--With files from Edith Hammond

Similar tragedy at a Quebec seniors' home in 1969

On Dec. 2, 1969, a fire tore through a seniors' residence in the town of Notre-Dame-du-Lac, Que., killing 44 of the 75 residents.

Louis Chiasson, 65, the home's maintenance worker, started the fire. He was convicted of second-degree murder.

Quebec's then-premier Jean-Jacques Bertrand said the tragedy was "a dramatic reminder that we have a lot to do to ensure our responsibilities towards senior citizens." Bertrand also demanded inspections of all senior homes in Quebec to ensure the appropriate security precautions were being taken.


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