MONTREAL — A Montreal firefighter told a coroner's inquest on Tuesday of his desperate search to stay afloat and find his colleagues in the churning waters of the Lachine Rapids after the boat carrying them capsized during a rescue attempt.
Robin Brunet-Paiement said he knew that he and his colleagues were in dangerous waters when they pulled up to a stalled boat with two people aboard on Oct. 17, 2021 — though he hadn't realized how far into the rapids they had gone.
He told the inquest into the drowning death of his colleague Pierre Lacroix that he was trying to manoeuvre the craft to a steadier position when he felt a wave hit. Their boat collided with the pleasure craft, and he saw water coming toward him. The next thing he knew, he was underneath the overturned HammerHead rescue boat.
"My memory is I found myself on the ceiling (of the boat)," he said. "The lights lit the boat and I saw pebbles at the bottom of the water."
Coroner Géhane Kamel is presiding over hearings that are scheduled to last two weeks at the courthouse in Joliette, Que., about 75 kilometres northeast of Montreal. She told the firefighters her goal is not to assign blame but rather to prevent future tragedies.
Brunet-Paiement managed to pull himself out and climb on top of the flipped boat, yelling for his colleagues. Fellow firefighter Michael Maillé climbed up next to him, but they were soon both swept away by another wave, he testified.
He said eventually, as he was fighting for breath in the water, he managed to grab hold of his other colleague, François Rabouin, who was in bad shape.
"I told him I wouldn’t leave him, that we would finish this together," he said.
Eventually, they made their way to the pleasure boat, which had not capsized, and were pulled aboard by the two occupants. Later, he directed a rescue boat to a light in the water, hoping it was his two remaining missing colleagues.
A short time later, that boat returned, but just one of the remaining missing firefighters was aboard.
"It was then I understood Pierre was dead," he said.
Maillé told the inquest that he was the only one of the four who wasn't initially trapped under the boat. He said he saw Brunet-Paiement and Rabouin emerge, but not Lacroix.
Maillé told the inquiry that he was able to get off a first "mayday" call before he was swept off the boat's hull into the water.
Rabouin, for his part, said he never saw Lacroix after the boat capsized. By the time he escaped from under the boat, he was exhausted and disoriented and convinced he was going to die, he said.
His last memory of his friend, he said, was on the boat in the final chaotic minutes as the wave hit. Lacroix was trying to lift his collar to keep the water out of his raincoat, and the two shared a look.
"He was still smiling," he said.
Stéphanie Lacroix, Pierre Lacroix's daughter, addressed each of the firefighters at the conclusion of their testimony. In a tearful exchange, she told Brunet-Paiement and Rabouin she'd known them since she was a young girl, and didn't want them to blame themselves.
"I will love you unconditionally until the end of my life," she told them.
Earlier Tuesday, Lt. Sylvain Dominique of the Montreal fire department testified that despite an extensive effort from the water, shore and air, rescuers did not look under the capsized HammerHead boat in the initial hours after the accident.
Dominique, who was working at a command post from shore, told the inquest that the capsized rescue boat was located within an hour of the accident but was stuck at the bottom of the river and couldn't immediately be flipped over.
He says he directed search teams to ignore the boat and instead focus on searching the open water for Lacroix because he believed the firefighter was likely already dead if he was trapped beneath it.
"Given the time that had elapsed, if Pierre was under the boat there was nothing we could do," he said.
It was only at about 3 a.m. — some seven and a half hours after the accident — that a Montreal police underwater camera determined that Lacroix's body was pinned beneath the capsized boat.
Dominique told the inquiry that he wasn’t aware that Montreal police possessed underwater cameras capable of looking under the boat’s hull. Had he known, he would have asked for them, he said.
Later, he told a lawyer for Quebec’s workplace health and safety board that he felt the nautical squad lacks proper equipment, including proper maps, and waterproof radios and personal GPS trackers.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 22, 2022.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press