Quebec man recounts rescue attempt in propane explosion that left workers missing

As a ceiling and wall collapsed on a woman desperately trying to flee the scene of an explosion at a Quebec propane distribution company, Éric Lizotte could only watch in horror.

The resident of St-Roch-de-l'Achigan, Que., whose home is just metres from Propane Lafortune, said he was in the middle of trying to rescue the unknown woman and anyone else trapped by the Thursday morning blast.

Three people remain missing after the explosion which Lizotte said left him shaken and grappling with indelible images, particularly related to his aborted rescue attempt.

"As I tried to remove debris, I felt this intense heat. It was a furnace. It was unbelievable. I put snow on my head to try to offset the heat as I tried to get closer to the lady. I heard explosions going off from every direction," Lizotte said in a Saturday interview from his home about 50 kilometres north of Montreal.

"I got about two feet away from her. At that point, I saw that a portion of the roof was about to collapse. I hesitated to move forward, and then suddenly, it began to collapse, and it took a part of an opposite wall with it, falling completely on top of her. And within seconds, a fire broke out. There was nothing I could do, so I got out and left."

Two employees and a subcontractor are still missing as provincial police continue to investigate the blast with the help of police arson technicians. Hydro-Québec is also assisting in the probe, according to local authorities.

Police have said they do not believe the explosion was a criminal act but have not established what caused it.

Lizotte said he was clearing snow from his pickup truck when the blast occurred. He said although he did not hear anything, he saw part of the roof launched into the sky.

"I quickly told my partner to call 911, and I got into my other car, and I rushed to the site. It took me about 45 seconds," he said.

Lizotte immediately noted heavy damage to a nearby garage before turning his attention to the entrance of the company headquarters.

"Everything had collapsed," he said. "(The explosion) had blown (off) parts of the administrative side."

The local fire department received calls Thursday morning about an explosion and fire at Propane Lafortune, but the risk of further explosions forced firefighters to retreat and they only managed to bring the blaze under control in the evening.

During a news conference on Friday, authorities said it could take several days before they complete their work at the levelled building.

Quebec provincial police spokesperson Sgt. Éloïse Cossette described the scene as complicated.

"We will continue to search the scene with our specialists," Cossette said. "We still have three people missing, at least."

Neither police nor Propane Lafortune provided any updates Saturday on the status of the missing workers.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 14, 2023.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Marisela Amador, The Canadian Press