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'They were coming to save us': Inquest opens into deaths of two Quebec firefighters

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Linda Simard says her husband frantically told her to call 911 as he watched two volunteer firefighters get swept away in rushing floodwaters in Quebec's Charlevoix region last year.

Simard was one of the first people to testify in the coroner's inquest that opened on Monday into the deaths of the two men, who fell off their amphibious vehicle and into the river on their way to rescue her and her husband.

"It’s very hard," Simard said during her teary testimony. "They were coming to save us."

Coroner Andrée Kronström began hearing from witnesses at the courthouse in La Malbaie, Que., during an inquiry that will span several days in April and May, overlapping the first anniversary of the deaths of Christopher Lavoie, 23, and Régis Lavoie, 55.

Kronström said the goal is not to assign blame but to better understand what happened when the two men, who were not related, lost their lives on May 1, 2023.

The deaths have been the subject of much talk and rumours in the small community of St-Urbain, northeast of Quebec City.

"We'll put that all aside and we will hear the witnesses who will come to testify under oath and we will be able to grasp what really happened," Kronström said. "What drives me, and what will drive everyone here, is the quest for truth.”

The firefighters were attempting a rescue when the amphibious vehicle they were using began to drift in the rough waters and they fell into the overflowing Gouffre River. Their bodies were discovered two days later, and neither man was wearing a life vest over their firefighting gear.

Marylou Lavoie, daughter of Régis Lavoie, described her father as a happy, generous man who worked in forestry and as a security guard at the local hospital. She said he volunteered as a firefighter for nearly 25 years.

The amphibious vehicle the two men were in was often used by Régis Lavoie to go fishing, she said, adding that she didn't know why they had used it for a rescue.

She described her father as a "pillar” of the family and a man “with a big heart."

"The only thing I want to be remembered is that he was a great man. He would have given everything to everyone before himself," Marylou Lavoie said, holding back tears.

Later on Monday, Simard testified that on May 1, 2023, the water of the Gouffre River had started to rise quickly and surround her home. Neither security officials or local leaders had told the couple to leave beforehand, she said.

Firefighters tried to get to the couple but the roadway leading to the home wasn't accessible. In response, the local fire chief said they would send an amphibious vehicle to get them.

But as the two men approached the home, their vehicle was overtaken by the rushing water. Simard said her husband saw what happened and told her in a panic to call 911.

The couple were eventually saved by police helicopter in the early evening. But before then, Simard said she and her husband were resigned to dying. "We thought we were going to die, that the house was going to be washed away."

Kronström said the two firefighters drowned and that Christopher Lavoie also suffered internal bleeding due to head trauma.

A workplace health and safety report concluded the firefighters lacked the training and equipment necessary to carry out the rescue. Among the board's recommendations was that Quebec's firefighting academy require recruits to be trained on water rescues. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on April 15, 2024. 

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