3 still missing after explosion, police say it could take days to identify victims

Isabelle Lafortune, the co-owner of Propane Lafortune, speaks to reporters on Friday, the day after an explosion destroyed the company's outlet in Saint-Roch-de-L'Achigan, Que.  (Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC - image credit)
Isabelle Lafortune, the co-owner of Propane Lafortune, speaks to reporters on Friday, the day after an explosion destroyed the company's outlet in Saint-Roch-de-L'Achigan, Que. (Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC - image credit)

Three people are still missing after an explosion at a propane distributor in a small town north of Montreal on Thursday.

The blast, which rocked Propane Lafortune, a family-run outlet that sold propane and heating oil in Saint-Roch-de-L'Achigan, Que., ignited fuel tanks just before 11:30 a.m. Thursday. It sparked a blaze that forced the evacuation of nearby homes, drew firefighters from across the region and took hours to extinguish.

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Isabelle Lafortune, who co-owns Propane Lafortune with her sister, told reporters assembled in Saint-Roch-de-L'Achigan on Friday that her family was in shock.

"I want to offer my sincere sympathy to the families of those who are still missing," she said. "It's an extremely difficult challenge for us. This is a first in 67 years."

Lafortune said two of the missing are employees of Propane Lafortune and one is a sub-contractor.

Investigators from the Sûreté du Québec, Quebec's provincial police force, have begun combing the site of the fire, looking to determine how it started. But snow from a winter storm, large quantities of debris and the possibility of other flammable materials igniting have hampered their progress.

"We are meeting with witnesses, trying to get at much information as possible," said Sûreté du Québec spokesperson Éloïse Cossette. "Nothing points toward any criminal element, but I can't say more about causes, not at this stage, because of the devastation and the work we still have to do."

Cossette said it will likely take several days before investigators are able to confirm the identities of the three victims, who are still being officially referred to as "missing," even though she said police do not expect to find anyone alive and injured amid the rubble.

"I know people want it to be faster," she said, "but we don't have a choice — we're working with guidance of the province's forensic crime lab — to do a thorough investigation. It will take several days."

While investigators aren't entirely ruling out the possibility of finding more than three people, Cossette said they have received no information that indicates there will be a "fourth or a fifth victim."

Sébastien Marcil, the mayor of Saint-Roch-de-L'Achigan, said the delay in knowing the fate of the workers is difficult for the town's residents.

"It's very hard to go through what they're going through right now because there is a wait, and the wait will be long," he said.

Propane Lafortune was part of the fabric of Saint-Roch-de-L'Achigan, Marcil said. Everyone in town knew or had some connection with the family.

Since the explosion, Marcil said messages of support have been pouring in.

François Bonnardel, Quebec's public security minister, and Caroline Proulx, who is the minister responsible for the Lanaudière region, were in Saint-Roch-de-L'Achigan on Friday to "support the community," Bonnardel said.

The Quebec Propane Association issued a statement on social media in support of the Propane Lafortune. "Our thoughts are with the employees who are still missing and their families," the association's statement said.

Quebec's Environment Ministry said an emergency responder was on the scene on Thursday to help ensure the containment of toxic runoff from the fuel fire into the nearby Achigan River. "Checks are underway this morning to assess the situation in order to take additional measures if necessary," the ministry said in a statement.