Family of four found dead in Quebec country house gobbled by gaping sinkhole

It took only an instant for an idyllic country scene to collapse in an apocalyptic abyss — the earth opened, gobbled up part of a village, and dragged a family of four down to its death in a muddy crater.

A landslide in Saint-Jude

A landslide in Saint-Jude

SAINT-JUDE, Que. — It took only an instant for an idyllic country scene to collapse in an apocalyptic abyss — the earth opened, gobbled up part of a village, and dragged a family of four down to its death in a muddy crater.

Authorities said the hockey-mad Prefontaines were in the basement of their elegant country home cheering on the Montreal Canadiens when the landslide struck Monday night.

“After digging and going through the rubble we found the four victims,” Michel Dore, Quebec’s emergency management co-ordinator, said Tuesday night.

“They were found very close to one another, some of them lying on the couch in the family room in the basement.”

The first body found belonged to father Richard Prefontaine. The others were his wife Lynne Charbonneau and daughters Anais, 9 and Amelie, believed to be 11.

The family’s golden retriever had been found earlier, alive, tied to a tree in the mud. The dog, named Foxy, was initially so weak it was believed to be dead, but gained strength and was soon walking gingerly.

The landslide tore a hole more than four times the size of a football field into St-Jude, a verdant village near Montreal.

It ate up three cars, one stretch of a concrete road and most of the pretty Prefontaine house that once sat by a cliff over a tributary of the Yamaska River. The landslide pulled down that cliff.

Residents say they’ve had nasty incidents before in the farming community about 50 kilometres east of Montreal. The area is laden with clay, and a ground collapse a few years ago wiped out a small bridge.

But they said they’ve never seen anything like this.

Rescue workers struggled for almost a full day – at times digging with their hands – to enter a home that was mostly buried in mud with only its green roof left peeking out.

“It’s a pretty gigantic crater,” said Francois Gregoire, a fire department spokesman.

“It’s hard imagining something like this. It’s pretty impressive.”

The Prefontaine family’s lush green yard was transformed into an undulating mess of tangled trees, grass and clay blocks.

Mayor Yves de Bellefeuille said the incident had the small village in shock, especially since the home is not in an area considered to be especially at risk.

“It has hit the community hard. We’ll have to see what the future brings.”

Neighbours described family patriarch Richard Prefontaine as a hard-working, second-generation electrician who adored nature and, in his spare time, likes photographing wildlife.

The classrooms were silent at Aux Quatre-Vents elementary school where the younger child, a girl, was in fourth grade.

Principal Chantal Chagnon said she had never seen the bustling building so quiet. In a small town like this one, she said, word spread quickly and the students knew why there was an empty seat in the class.

“We told them that in times like these we have to take care of each other,” she said.

One of the dead girl’s classmates began shrieking when she saw images of the collapsed house on TV early Tuesday.

Neighbour Stephane Chabot said his daughter immediately screamed out, “Hey, it’s Anais’s house!”

Chabot described the father as a good person with an equally good family.

The school principal said students were being encouraged to ask questions Tuesday. The most common query was, Chagnon said, “Will this happen to my house?”

It’s far likelier to happen in some parts of the country than others.

The St. Lawrence and Ottawa valleys are laden with clay deposited in low coastal areas during the last Ice Age.

The clay is very sensitive and, if disturbed, it can lose its physical strength and liquefy, causing its slope to collapse and the land to slide.

Natural Resources Canada says clay earthflows have caused 100 deaths in modern times, including the destruction of two Quebec towns — Notre-Dame-de-la-Salette in 1908 and St-Jean-Vianney in 1971.

That latter occurred on May 4, 1971 — which, in a bizarre coincidence, was also the night of a Montreal Canadiens game, during another surprising Stanley Cup run.

John Stix, chair of McGill University’s earth and planetary sciences department, said some clay is susceptible to liquifying if its properties are changed.

That process might have been prodded by rain in recent days. However, Stix said it hasn’t been especially wet this spring and he expressed surprise over Monday’s incident.

“If you change the properties of the clay, it basically goes from a solid to a liquid pretty easily and the whole slope can start flowing,” he said.

“We’ve had some rain here and so forth but not crazy amounts of rain — so why (would it be) now as opposed to, for example, last spring or the spring before?”

Dore said the area was considered only a light risk for landslides. But in retrospect, he said, building a house there had clearly been a mistake.

“Often enough, especially close to rivers like we have here, just erosion at the bottom of the cliff is sufficient to trigger a disbalance and generate a cascading effect as we’ve seen today,” he said.

A truck driver who was rescued told police he saw the land slide, strike the home and carry it partially into the river.

Earlier in the day, rescue crews escaped the home on at least two attempts after feeling it shake.

Dore tipped his hat to the rescue crews, made up of mostly local firemen, who had been working for almost 24 hours straight in a desperate attempt to reach the family before it was too late.