ST-HENRI-DE-TAILLON, Que. — Quebec provincial police search-and-rescue teams scoured the frigid waters of the Lac-Saint-Jean region on Wednesday for five missing French tourists, the day after a group of snowmobilers who were travelling off-trail plunged into the water.
Police said 42-year-old Benoit L’Esperance of Montreal — who was serving as a guide to a group of eight French tourists — died several hours after being admitted to hospital Tuesday night. Three members of the group reached safety.
However, search efforts were complicated on Wednesday afternoon when one of two provincial police helicopters involved in the search crashed near the scene.
The pilot, who was the only occupant, was quickly reached by the search-and-rescue team already on site, according to provincial police Sgt. Beatrice Dorsainville. She said the pilot was conscious and taken to hospital with injuries that did not appear to be serious.
The search of the area about 200 kilometres north of Quebec City initially involved provincial police on snowmobiles, local firefighters and Canadian Armed Forces personnel. By afternoon, the military had left but police helicopters, boats, and two teams of divers had joined the effort, Dorsainville said.
She said police were also searching the shorelines, adding that it “wasn’t impossible” that some of the snowmobilers could have made it to safety.
Earlier in the day, Sgt. Hugues Beaulieu said the tourists and their guide were travelling between St-Henri-de-Taillon and Alma when the ice gave way.
One person was taken to hospital after being pulled from the water by two other members of the group, who made it to a nearby convenience store and alerted authorities at around 7:30 p.m.
Rescuers later found the guide, who died in hospital.
Charles Tremblay, who owns the convenience store, said one of his employees was working when the three snowmobilers showed up Tuesday evening.
Despite the fact that one of them had gone in the water, the men hadn’t seen the other riders break through and at first thought they’d simply lost their group, Tremblay said his employee told him.
“They didn’t see it as a tragedy, they didn’t understand the seriousness of what had happened,” Tremblay said in a phone interview.
It was only after unsuccessfully trying to reach their friends on their cellphones that the three snowmobilers called 911, Tremblay said.
Laurent Barbot, the Deputy Consul for France in Quebec, said French authorities had been contacting the families of the missing men, who came from the east of the country.
He said the three who survived were doing “physically well,” but were shocked by the tragedy.
At his side, Andree Laforest, the minister responsible for the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region, told a late-day news conference that police emergency services were working urgently to locate the missing tourists.
“The important thing is to find them,” she said at a command post erected on the site.
In the hours following the accident, authorities stressed the dangers of straying off marked and groomed snowmobile trails.
Gaetan Gagne, the president of the Lac-Saint-Jean snowmobile club, said the area where the accident occurred, known as the Grande Decharge, is known to be extremely dangerous.
“Enthusiasts in the area, they know it well,” he said in a phone interview. “They know you shouldn’t go near the Grande Decharge because there’s a dam lower down, so the water isn’t calm. It almost never freezes.”
Gagne said the snowmobilers must have been “at least a couple of kilometres” off the trails, which he said are well-marked and easy to follow.
France Paradis, a retired journalist and snowmobiler who lives in the area, echoed Gagne’s confusion.
He said it’s unusual for guided tours to be out at 7:30 p.m., especially in an area known for open water and fast currents.
“A professional guide who knows the area well would never go there, especially at this time of the year,” he said.
Laforest, for her part, said it was still too early to speculate about how the group came to be where they were. She said the Quebec government has been working on a new framework to regulate the province’s tourist operators, which will be announced in the coming days.
She said she, like many others from the region, was profoundly shaken by the news.
“We’re a paradise of snow and snowmobiling, but now, with tragedies like this, please snowmobile safely,” she said. ”Stay on the trails.”
She noted that the mishap occurred in the middle of International Snowmobile Safety Week.
—By Morgan Lowrie in Montreal
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 22, 2020.
The Canadian Press