Feb. 11 update: La Pêche Mayor Guillaume Lamoureux said the La Pêche Fire Department arrived at the scene of the fire 12 minutes after receiving the 911 call.
When André Forget saw flames coming from a nearby home on Chemin Murray in Sainte-Cécile-de-Masham just before 11 p.m. on Feb. 6, he and his wife, Julie, immediately jumped into action.
While Julie called 911, Forget threw on clothes and raced from the house, across a small field towards the blaze.
When Forget arrived at the home, he found himself alone in front of what he describes as a “massive inferno.”
“It was bizarre, all of the sounds of this massive fire and no one around,” Forget remembered. “Then all of a sudden [I found the couple] and I was told there were kids inside and it just changes everything.”
Forget and another neighbour, Rink de Lange, who arrived with his wife, Leanne Olson – both had worked with Doctors Without Borders and who now works for the Canadian Red Cross – attempted to enter the burning home once they realized there were still children inside.
“I approached the house and knocked and banged and yelled, but then windows started breaking above me and flames started pushing me back and I couldn't go any further,” Forget said regretfully. “I did my best, but it was impossible to get inside that house.”
When Forget returned to the couple – the mother covered in blood and burns and both struggling for air – he decided he needed to move them away from the house, in order to begin administering first aid and to try and keep the couple warm as they were still wearing nothing more than bedclothes with temperatures reaching lows of -10. Forget took the couple into a nearby garage where it would be dry and a little warmer, while, at the same time, yelling across the field for his son, Evan, 15, to bring him his first aid kit. Forget had just completed his advanced first aid training with Canadian Ski Patrol last month.
In order to help keep the couple warm, Forget helped the man physically carry the woman – the children's mother – up narrow steps into a nearby garage.
“We [he and Olson] were just trying to control the bleeding and trying to comfort them and keep them warm,” Forget explained.
However, Forget shares the credit for whatever small first aid support he could provide to Olson.
“Leanne was pivotal in the whole thing,” Forget said. “We worked as a team and it was great to have her.”
On top of Olson’s experience as a nurse with Doctors Without Borders and the Canadian Red Cross, she is also a former charge nurse at the children’s emergency department at CHEO.
Olson said that the mother’s feet and legs had numerous lacerations — wounds she received when, according to police, she jumped through a window to escape the blaze after she had re-entered the burning house desperate to find her children.
“I was very happy that André was on the scene with his medical kit or else I would have had to go get my own, losing more time,” Olson explained. “It was good that we were both there.”
“[The couple] both clearly had smoke inhalation, which for me was a lot more serious than the burns. I was very glad when I saw the paramedics bring up their O2 tanks and we could at least give them some oxygen, while we waited to transfer them [to the ambulance].”
“I don't think anyone could have gotten near that house”
Olson said that she and Forget were with the couple anywhere from 30 to 40 minutes administering first aid before first responders arrived — first the fire department, then police, with the paramedics close behind. The closest La Pêche Fire Department station is six kilometres away in Masham.
She admitted that even at the moment she arrived herself, there was very little anyone could do aside from administering first aid.
“The heat was extensive, and [the house] burned so astonishingly quickly,” Olson recalled. “I don't think anyone could have gotten near [it].”
Olson said there were numerous time-consuming delays that contributed to a slower response from first responders, mostly due to the realities of living in a more remote location like Masham.
“I had huge problems trying to explain the location to 911,” Olson said. “I had to try a number of different ways to explain it to them; [the operators] kept saying they couldn't find us until Rink told me to give them the postal code.”
When paramedics did arrive, they had to park behind three fire trucks on the narrow road, which forced them to haul their equipment through the snow quite a distance to where the couple was.
“It was difficult to get the oxygen [to the couple], and to get them down the stairs on the transport chair, and to move them to the ambulance safely — [it] was quite a challenge,” Olson explained, adding that, as they were moving the couple, she and the paramedics had to clear glass and debris from their path just to get the chair to the ambulance. “The garage was up on top of a set of very narrow stairs and it was very dark [and] we were using flashlights.”
“It was horrific”
Olson said she’s lived in the neighbourhood for over 25 years, and said she’s never seen something happen there comparable to what took place on the night of Feb. 6.
“I've never seen a house fire that extensive in my life, it was horrific,” Olson said. “The whole neighbourhood feels horrified by this, we never had anything happen on this lane of this magnitude.”
Police had reported early on the morning of Feb. 7 that two young girls, both under the age of 10, went missing after the fire broke out. Investigators called in an excavator to search for the children earlier that day, along with a police forensic identification unit, which arrived before noon. Police said that two bodies were found inside the remains of the home. The police have not confirmed the names of the victims.
The bodies were transferred to Montreal for autopsies and police said they would be identified later this week after those were completed.
An investigation into the cause of the blaze is also not yet known, but a fire investigator and a canine unit were both called to the scene.
Police said the mother was initially taken to the hospital in critical condition but is now stable in a Montreal hospital burn unit. The mother’s boyfriend, who is not the children’s father, was also taken to the hospital and treated for less critical injuries.
Sgt. Martin Fournel, a spokesperson for the MRC des Collines Police, said that the investigation could take weeks to find a cause of the fire if one can even be found at all.
“With this type of investigation, we could end up with a ‘cause unknown’,” Fournel wrote in an email to The Low Down.