Political firestorm after drivers stranded overnight on Highway 13
Published Wednesday, March 15, 2017 7:54AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, March 16, 2017 10:47AM EDT
See this story for the latest news and political response on the Highway 13 snowstorm debacle.
In two conference calls overnight involving emergency officials, nobody shared the knowledge that hundreds of drivers were stranded on Highway 13.
Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said that emergency officials began a series of conference calls at 11: 50 p.m. Tuesday to discuss the blizzard that walloped the city.
At that time drivers had been stuck for hours in the southbound lanes of Highway 13, unable to move because of a crash close to Highway 20.
Yet while people from the Ministry of Transportation mentioned the highway was closed, nobody said that drivers were stranded in their vehicles.
The second phone call took place at 1:40 a.m., and nobody from the Ministry of Transportation was on the call.
At 4:30 a.m. the Sureté du Quebec, aware of the stranded drivers, called on the Montreal fire department for help evacuating stranded drivers.
Once two firetrucks arrived, firefighters took over evacuation procedures with no further help from the SQ.
Coderre said the lack of co-ordination was not acceptable.
"I spoke to Martin [Coiteux, Minister of Public Security], I spoke to Laurent [Lessard, Minister of Transport]. It's not about a pissing match. It's about looking for answers, because this is a winter town," said Coderre.
Huddling together for warmth
The crash, triggered by drivers of cars and trucks losing control during the storm, stranded up to 500 people between Highways 40 and 20.
“Everybody tried to go this little quick way, 'Let me through the side' to pass the truck, because he was stuck. And then they all got stuck in the side. And then the truck tried to pass those cars to make way for himself. Then he got stuck and spun out,” said a UPS driver who spent a long night trapped in his truck.
Drivers were unable to advance and some had to abandon their vehicles and leave the highway on foot.
Many others waited in their car for as many as 12 hours -- some ran out of gas, others didn’t have any food.
Many helped each other out by rationing their fuel.
“We're just sitting around with the other truck drivers in their trucks staying warm because our trucks were running out of gas at the same time,” said one truck driver.
Dominic Arsenault gave up in the middle of the night, hours after he ran out of gas.
"I walked back to the 40 and I was hitchhiking. Somebody picked me up and dropped me at home so I was really lucky," said Arsenault.
Once firefighters were called, they checked on every vehicle.
“They went from car to car to make sure that people were okay in their cars,” said Ian Ritchie of the Montreal fire department. “We also dispatched one of our buses that is heated, that has a toilet.”
Montréal firefighters on highway 13 helping motorists trapped in the snow overnight. Good work buy guys at Station 64. pic.twitter.com/trLXP4OlD2— Chris Ross (@chrisvpross) March 15, 2017
Shortly before 7 a.m. on Wednesday, Highway 13 south was cleared enough to allow cars to slowly make their way home. It fully reopened late in the morning.
Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said the abandoned cars are being towed and can be collected at Burstall, 480 Montréal-Toronto Blvd. in Lachine.
Arsenault picked up his car Wednesday and had to pay $218: $165 plus a $25 storage fee.
"They offer a service and don't work for free. Maybe the government should pay something but the company itself is fair," said Arsenault.
Hours later the government announced it would reimburse everyone who had their car towed from Highway 13.
Those affected are being told to contact William Hikspoors.
photo: Shuyee Lee/ CJAD
The events created a political firestorm in Quebec City. Premier Philippe Couillard called it an “exceptional situation” and said there are lessons to be learned as Liberal politicians scrambled to explain what happened.
Opposition leaders said the government failed.
"I would like to know who's accountable. Who's accountable for this problem?" demanded CAQ leader Francois Legault.
Parti Quebecois leader Jean-Francois Lisée called the handling of the snowstorm the "worst crisis management" since Couillard came into power.
"This morning we saw two ministers getting out of bed seemingly unaware of what had happened," said Lisée.
Couillard admitted the storm response "lacked coordination."
Transport Minister Laurent Lessard, Coiteux and Couillard all spoke to reporters Wednesday, where they said there would be a post-mortem to determine exactly what went wrong.
According to Coiteux, there were municipal police officers, the SQ, and people from the transport ministry on the ground.
Couillard said he has no doubt the people on the ground were doing their best, but he said it's clear there was a lack of coordination and communication.
Coiteux added the fact that hundreds of drivers were stranded for hours on the highway is unacceptable.
“It’s deplorable. It’s something that we don’t want to happen. I understand the frustration. Even if we deployed all the resources, if we can improve things in the future we will do so,” he said.
“We have to take the lessons of this situation and do better – much better – next time. I’ve been stuck once for a few hours in my car during a snowstorm and there are things like (a cellphone) where we can communicate to people to let them know what’s happening. We know you’re there. We may not get now but we are coming to you,” added the premier. “We’re going to look at this very seriously.”