It was -15 ° C and night fell Tuesday evening on Lac Saint-Jean, in northern Quebec (Canada) when the trip by snowmobile of a group of French tourists turned into drama. The ice would have collapsed under the weight of their motor vehicles and their Quebec guide, a 42-year-old man, died.
Of the eight French people, mostly from eastern France, five are missing and three others have been hospitalized. According to France 3 Grand Est, it is a 24-year-old Bas-Rhinois, a 34-year-old Haut-Rhinois and three Vosgiens aged 24, 25 and 58. The three survivors are from the Haut-Rhin.
Helicopter accident during search
Significant search facilities have been deployed to locate the missing: two helicopters, two "water craft", two teams of four divers, police on board snowmobiles and investigators, lists Sergeant Béatrice Dorsainville of the Sûreté du Québec . "We are still hopeful and we still hope that they have found refuge on the shores of the lake," said the spokeswoman.
In addition, on Wednesday evening, one of the two helicopters crashed into the water during the search. "The pilot who was alone on board would have suffered injuries, but there would be no fear for his life," tweeted Sûreté du Québec, who assured that this event, the causes of which are still unknown, will not harm research.
#Eventencurrent | One of the Sûreté du Québec helicopters conducting research in the Beemer Island sector crashed into the water. The pilot who was alone on board suffered injuries, but there is no fear for his life.- Sûreté du Québec (@sureteduquebec) January 22, 2020
According to the first elements of the investigation, the group of tourists, who had not rented their tracked vehicles in the Lac Saint-Jean region, were moving off the marked trails, marked by red stakes planted in the snow every 30 to 50 m.
The group arrived from the north of the lake and were to join an inn in Saint-Gédéon, a town on the eastern shore of the lake. The accident took place at the Grande Décharge, one of the main spillways of the lake, from where the imposing Saguenay river starts.
"This is where a hydroelectric plant is located, it draws a lot of water from the lake which changes its levels: it creates gaps in the ice", describes Eric Corbin, a Frenchman who rents snowmobiles in the region for 22 years and also guides tourists. "In principle, we know where these faults are, we know that we should not go there, the water does not freeze in this area".
"This is not a place where we will snowmobile"
"This is not a place where we will snowmobile, confirms André Paradis, mayor of Saint-Henri-de-Taillon, the town near the accident site, which makes me think that the guide did not know not where he was going and he was not from the region ”.
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According to Le journal de Québec, the tourists had rented their snowmobiles in Saint-Michel-des-Saints, north of Montreal, more than 500 kilometers from Lac Saint-Jean. But the owner insures that the guide who accompanied the French was not linked to his business.
"They surely wanted to take a shortcut and cross the arm of the lake rather than go around the land and take the bridge," imagines Eric Corbin. The ice then gave way. "It was dark and if they were traveling at a good speed of 60 kilometers per hour, they must have seen the water only at the last moment and could not do anything," he said.
If the exact circumstances of the accident are not yet known, the Sûreté du Québec believes that “one of the members of the group fell into the water when the ice broke. He was rescued by two of his companions who contacted the emergency services. "
"Why did they decide to take this shortcut? "
A few kilometers from the Grande Décharge is Charles Tremblay's grocery store in Saint-Henri-de-Taillon. It was in his business that three tourists came to ask his young employee for help, he says. “It was dark, they were looking for their friends but did not understand the extent of the situation. They tried to reach their friends and then alerted the Sûreté ”.
All three were hospitalized for frostbite, cold injuries. "We don't fear for their lives," we are told by the Sûreté. France, for its part, contacted the families of the victims "to give them support," said the Quai d'Orsay in a press release. Foreign Affairs adds that the Embassy in Ottawa and the Consulate General in Quebec are "fully mobilized".
Now the questions remain. "Why did they decide to take this shortcut? Did the guide know the area well? Was he sufficiently qualified? Asks Eric Corbin, who describes Lake Saint-Jean as "an inland sea whose weaknesses must be known".