As smoke billowed through the Résidence du Havre and screams filled the night air, one aged resident in Room 316 was in a rare position to know what to do. His name was Conrad Morin, and he had spent his lifetime fighting fires.
Mr. Morin is a legend in his hometown of Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!, where the fire station bears his name. For three decades, he directed men into burning buildings and taught citizens what to do if they were trapped by fire. On Jan. 23, the 88-year-old faced the test himself.
Woken by smoke soon after midnight, Mr. Morin reached for the doorknob of his room and, feeling it was hot to the touch, knew he had to escape another route. He stripped the sheets off his bed and tied them to his balcony railing. Then he began to lower himself to safety, only to have a sheet tear. He tumbled to the icy ground, injured, but alive.
"It was a hell inside that building. My father heard his neighbours screaming," his son, Jean-Yves Morin, recalled in an interview this week. "When you're in a prison of smoke, there's nothing you can do."
Mr. Morin might have been considered among the lucky few at the residence, where the catastrophic fire left 32 residents presumed dead. But his beloved Éva, his wife of nearly 70 years, was in a room on the ground floor, housed there because she required additional care. For Mr. Morin, the instinct to rescue people from fires pumped through his veins. But he could not save the one person in the world who meant most to him.
"My father's plan was to go get her. He couldn't do it," the couple's shaken son said about his father, who is in hospital with serious back injuries. "My father still lives with the doubts."
The divergent fates of the couple expose the raw divide between survivors and victims in the L'Isle-Verte fire, between the more able-bodied and the more infirm, between those in the newer wing and the older wing. As dignitaries including Prime Minister Stephen Harper gather for a commemorative mass in the Lower St. Lawrence village on Saturday, disturbing questions linger about whether additional safety measures could have saved more lives.
Éva Saindon was housed in the original wing of the building, which had no sprinklers and burned to the ground. It was generally meant for seniors with greater autonomy, yet Mrs. Saindon was bed-ridden and could not move on her own.
Meanwhile, the newer wing of the residence, equipped with sprinklers, is still standing; of the fire's 23 survivors, nearly all came from that wing.
The Morin family wasn't the only one torn apart by the blaze. Lucie Malenfant, 53, was born with a handicap that forced her to use a wheelchair; she lived in the Résidence du Havre to be with her parents, who had been her lifelong caregivers. Her mother died in 2004 and she and her father, known as Joe, remained close companions at the home.
"They ate all their meals together. And my father would always bring her breakfast. It was sacred to him," said Lucie's brother, Gilles Malenfant. "For him, it was a gesture of love."
The night of the fire, Lucie was rescued from her room in the newer wing. Her father, who was in the older wing, died. The seniors' home had been a welcome respite for him after a lifetime of farming and producing firewood from his land. "Leaving in such tragic circumstances, it's not easy to accept," said Gilles Malenfant.
Colette Lafrance and Madeleine Fraser were sisters-in-law and lifelong friends. Ms. Lafrance threw herself off her upper-floor balcony of the residence and survived. Ms. Fraser perished. "Right until the end, they were best friends," said Ms. Fraser's brother, Charles-Hector Fraser.
The deaths and suffering from the L'Isle-Verte fire have had ripples across Quebec.
In Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!, about 60 kilometres southeast of L'Isle-Verte, former firefighting comrades of Mr. Morin say the community is in shock. Mr. Morin was known as a courageous fire chief who didn't hesitate to head into a blaze himself. He created the fire brigade in 1955 and remained its chief until 1984. He was deeply involved in the community, and he and his wife ran the general store in town.
"I wasn't surprised that Conrad found a way to get out. He always kept his sang-froid and trained us not to stress during fire," said Gilles Pelletier, who served under him and then went on to become chief himself.
"He was a great leader. It was innate for him to try to get help for others. When you've been a firefighter all your life and you lose your wife in a fire, it's something."