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10 years after fire killed 32 seniors, the residents of L'Isle-Verte, Que., focus on rebuilding

The seniors' home burned to the ground, killing 32 people on Jan. 23, 2014. The cold January temperatures iced over the wreck. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press - image credit)
The seniors' home burned to the ground, killing 32 people on Jan. 23, 2014. The cold January temperatures iced over the wreck. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Bruno Bélanger woke up Jan. 23, 2014 to the news of a fire in town that would upend the lives of nearly everyone in L'Isle-Verte, Que., located 200 kilometres northeast of Quebec City.

"We rushed over to see what was going on," recalled Bélanger.

He was going to check on his aunt, who was living in Résidence du Havre, a private seniors' home that housed just over 50 people, located in the heart of the community of 1,500.

That morning she died alongside 31 other people in the three-storey section of the building that had a partial sprinkler system. Half of the victims were over the age of 90.

Only about 20 people escaped the blaze.

Some witnesses later described the rescue as a free-for-all and firefighters testified at a coroner's inquest in November 2014 that some residents were desperately calling out for help in their final moments.

Ten years on, Bélanger, the president of Les Amis des Aînés de L'Isle-Verte (friends of the L'Isle-Verte seniors) and one of the people helping organize the 10th anniversary commemoration, says the fire is still painful to remember but that the community needs to turn the page.

Bruno Bélanger lost his aunt in the blaze on Jan. 23, 2014. He's president of  Les Amis des Aînés de L'Isle-Verte who is working to rebuild the seniors' home.
Bruno Bélanger lost his aunt in the blaze on Jan. 23, 2014. He's president of Les Amis des Aînés de L'Isle-Verte who is working to rebuild the seniors' home.

Bruno Bélanger lost his aunt in the blaze on Jan. 23, 2014. He's president of Les Amis des Aînés de L'Isle-Verte who is working to rebuild the seniors' home. (Jean-Luc Blanchet/Radio-Canada)

On Tuesday evening, Bélanger says the town will hold a commemorative walk at 7 p.m. Police officers, firefighters and families will gather at the town's memorial, which was inaugurated outside the local church in August 2014.

"Even 10 years later, we speak about it with sadness. It's not easy. It shook our town … Almost no one was untouched," said Bélanger.

"We are not trying to forget our people, we are trying to forget what happened," said Bélanger. "We want to move on."

An 2014 fire destroyed the Résidence du Havre seniors residence in L'Isle-Verte, Que., leaving 32 people dead.
An 2014 fire destroyed the Résidence du Havre seniors residence in L'Isle-Verte, Que., leaving 32 people dead.

Only 20 people escaped the blaze that levelled the seniors' home. (infodimanche.com)

'A terrible way to lose someone we love,' says pharmacist

One of the last survivors of the tragedy, 91-year-old Colette Lafrance, says she avoids talking about the fire because it remains too painful.

But she says the events of that night still haunt her.

"On this nightmare of a night at the Résidence du Havre, the spirit of the Lord led 32 of our elderly to rest. They now live in our hearts and watch over us. We will never forget them," wrote Lafrance in a message to Radio-Canada.

Pharmacist Philippe Lépicier says the tragedy will forever be a part of the town.

His pharmacy, which was located inside the seniors' residence, burned to the ground.

WATCH | Pharmacist recalls solidarity after fatal fire:

On this anniversary, he says he's reflecting on the community's resilience.

"It's a terrible way to lose someone we love," said Lépicier. But he says the tragedy brought out the best in the community.

"I've seen people that stick together that help each other. I personally received a lot of help from the town, people that helped me rebuild."

Days following the fire, Lépicier set up shop a few doors down.

"We had a great responsibility because all the [patient] files were destroyed in the fire. And all the medication was also destroyed."

Not only did his team prepare medication from memory for those who needed it urgently, but Lépicier also transferred medical information for those who were being treated in the hospital.

"There was a lot of solidarity and love among the people. That's what I like to remember," said Lépicier.

The town, located 200 kilometres northeast of Quebec City, lost 32 residents in the fire. Half of them were over 90 years old.
The town, located 200 kilometres northeast of Quebec City, lost 32 residents in the fire. Half of them were over 90 years old.

The town, located 200 kilometres northeast of Quebec City, lost 32 residents in the fire. Half of them were over 90 years old. (Pier-Olivier Busque/Radio-Canada)

New seniors' home built on same site

Come this year, a new private seniors' home, known as an RPA in Quebec, will be rebuilt on the same site as the Résidence du Havre.

"People want to stay there. They spend all their lives in their villages," said Bélanger.

"This is really important. I know that I would like to grow old in the town where I live."

Les Amis des Aînés de L'Isle-Verte is helping lead the construction project and Bélanger — who happens to have the same name as a former orderly at the Havre residence — says the rebuilding has been 10 years in the making.

"We will be able to keep our people here in L'Isle-Verte," said Bélanger.

Although 70 locals are seeking housing, he says the new residence will only be able to house 20 people. He says there's a real demand.

The construction of a new residence is well under way in L'Isle-Verte, Que.
The construction of a new residence is well under way in L'Isle-Verte, Que.

The construction of a new residence is well under way in L'Isle-Verte, Que. (Jean-Luc Blanchet/Radio-Canada)

After several delays due to land purchase problems and COVID-19, he says the organization will take possession of the building in June.

Ginette Caron, the mayor of L'Isle-Verte, says the new residence will mark a return to normal and embody the town's desire to move forward.

"It can't be forgotten. It's significant. It was tragic. It was dramatic," said Caron.

"L'Isle-Verte must bounce back in memory of those we lost."

Ginette Caron wants to look forward and focus on the future of the town.
Ginette Caron wants to look forward and focus on the future of the town.

Ginette Caron wants to look forward and focus on the future of the town. (Jean-Luc Blanchet/Radio-Canada)