Police identify 2 of 3 victims found at explosion site north of Montreal as investigation continues

Technicians investigate the remains of a propane distribution company in Saint-Roch-de-l'Achigan, Que., on Sunday. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Technicians investigate the remains of a propane distribution company in Saint-Roch-de-l'Achigan, Que., on Sunday. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Two of the three bodies found at the site of an explosion and fire at a propane distributor in a small town north of Montreal have been identified, Radio-Canada has learned.

They are Céline Pilon and France Desrosiers, two employees of the company. The third victim —a subcontractor, according to the company — has not yet been named.

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 on the morning of Jan. 12. The explosion and ensuing fire forced the evacuation of nearby homes and drew firefighters from across the region. The raging fire took hours to extinguish.

On Monday, provincial police confirmed three bodies had been found. The Sûreté du Québec said Tuesday that the investigation into the cause of the blast could be long and complex.

Officials are dealing with a vast scene complicated by snow, hazardous materials and objects that were thrown far from the scene, said SQ spokesperson Sgt. Eloise Cossette.

"It's a very large scene with piles of debris, so we need to be very careful," Cossette said.

Five days after the explosion, investigators were "still looking for answers," Cossette said. She said there were several types of fuel at the scene, including propane, gasoline, diesel and heating oil.

Searchers had to shovel away snow before they could sift through piles of debris, Cossette said. She said the blast scattered evidence far and wide and burned some of it.

"It's long-term, meticulous work,'' she said.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press
Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The police major crimes unit has also been conducting an off-site investigation that includes speaking with a number of witnesses. Cossette declined to say if police suspect any crimes had been committed, but she said the investigation includes taking legal steps, such as obtaining warrants.

Gregory Patience, a professor of chemical engineering at Polytechnique Montréal, says such explosions are very rare in Canada, though not unheard of.

As examples, he referred to a natural gas explosion in Mississauga, Ont., that damaged dozens of homes in 2016, as well as the Lac-Megantic rail disaster of 2013, in which 47 people were killed when an oil-laden train derailed and exploded in the city's downtown core.

For an explosion to occur, he said, it takes three things: fuel, oxidation (generally air) and an ignition source to set it off, such as a spark, cigarette or even static electricity.

While he said he doesn't know the specifics of what happened in Saint-Roch-de-l'Achigan, he said the most likely scenario is that there was some kind of fuel or gas leak that ignited.

"There's no other way it would have happened that I can think of,'' he said.

Patience said Canada has a very strict certification process for companies that handle hazardous materials.

He said it will likely take time to know what happened in this case because the investigation will involve looking at vast amounts of highly technical data and examining all the possibilities of what could have gone wrong.

Cossette said several other organizations are also investigating the fire and explosion, including the coroner's office, Quebec's workplace safety board and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.