Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fingers point at 'stubborn smoker'

Man denies dad's cig started fatal fire

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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 on Friday as saying he believes the blaze was caused by a lit cigarette in the section of the building where Paul-Etienne Michaud lived.

Police are taking a more cautious tack.

"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."

At a later news conference, Lt. Michel Brunet was cautious about attributing the cause to anything in particular.

"It could be a cigarette, it could be a small heater, it could be an electrical problem," Brunet said. "We have to be sure at 100 per cent."

"We're going to take the time we need."

An emotional Jean-Andre Michaud said in an interview Saturday at his farmhouse that he's not buying 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, which he said only amounted to about a pack of cigarettes per week.

But he also described how his father, well-known in the family for his stubborn streak, would sometimes go to great lengths to get his fix.

He said his dad had been caught lighting up inside the seniors' residence a couple of times shortly after the building became smoke-free a few years back.

Jean-Andre Michaud also said his dad had his own makeshift smoking shack in the residence's parking lot: an old, rusted jalopy.

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 are pretty much tinted (from the tobacco stains)," Jean-Andre Michaud said of the minivan.

An employee at the residence told The Canadian Press she often saw Paul-Etienne Michaud, who lived at the home since its 1997 opening, head out to the lot to smoke in his vehicle.

The staffer said the elder Michaud was one of only two smokers she was aware of who lived in the building.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2014 A4

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