January 25, 2014 - 4:28 PM
L'ISLE-VERTE, Que. - A son struggling to deal with his father's death in a fatal fire has been forced to assume another burden: that some people in the community believe his dad's cigarette may have sparked the inferno.
Police said Saturday that 10 people are dead and another 22 residents were still missing after the fast-moving blaze consumed the Residence du Havre in the tiny Quebec community of L'Isle-Verte.
Jean-Andre Michaud's father, Paul-Etienne, 96, was among those who vanished in Thursday's fire and are believed to be entombed in mounds of rubble and thick slabs of ice.
But as Jean-Andre, 68, tries to mourn the loss of his dad, people in the community have begun to believe one of his father's cigarettes may have triggered the disaster.
He has faced questions about this possibility from police investigators and journalists. A media report has also led the town, including members of his extended family, to believe it all began with the cherry of his father's cigarette.
TVA quoted the building's night watchman as saying he believes the blaze was caused by a lit cigarette in the section of the building where Paul-Etienne Michaud lived.
An emotional Jean-Andre Michaud said in an interview Saturday at his farmhouse that he doesn't buy the argument his father might have started the fire, even though he acknowledged his dad was, at times, a determined smoker.
"My father smoked a bit, but would he get up in the middle of the night to go for a smoke?" he said as a tear rolled down his cheek inside the house where his father was born, just outside town.
"No, it's impossible... It would be a bitter pill to swallow to start saying, 'Look, your father started the fire'...
"It's not my father, leave me in peace, damn it."
Jean-Andre Michaud discussed his father's lifelong smoking habit.
He said his dad only smoked about a pack of cigarettes per week, but he noted his father had also been caught lighting up inside the seniors' residence a couple of times shortly after it was made a smoke-free building a few years back.
Jean-Andre Michaud also said his dad had his own smoking shack in the residence's parking lot.
In colder weather, he said his father would climb into his beat-up, undrivable minivan to smoke. The vehicle became a more-permanent fixture last summer after his son removed two of its wheels, so that his licence-less, elderly father could no longer take it for rides around town.
"You can see that the windows were pretty much tinted (from the tobacco stains)," Jean-Michaud said of the minivan.
Paul-Etienne Michaud's niece, who lives in the neighbouring village of St-Eloi, said she immediately thought something as banal as a cigarette could be the cause.
It wasn't long after that when she thought of her uncle.
"My uncle was probably, as I was saying, smoking secretly in the room," Lucie Michaud said at her house along the hamlet's main street.
"He wanted to smoke one last one before going to bed, but it was his last one."
Jean-Andre Michaud said provincial police investigators came to the family dairy farm after the fire to ask about his father's smoking habit.
Police, however, refused to say Saturday if they thought a resident's cigarette might have ignited the fire, despite being questioned by journalists.
"What's been said is one hypothesis among many," Quebec provincial police Lt. Guy Lapointe told a news conference.
"When you conduct an investigation of this magnitude, you have to determine all the facts and not simply just one or two in order to achieve a conclusion.
"For us, there are still many hypotheses on the table."
News from © The Canadian Press, 2014