Family of four found dead after home swallowed in landslide

Rescue workers work at the site where a family of four is missing after their house was swept away in a landslide May 11, 2010 in St. Jude, Quebec.


SAINT-JUDE, QUE.—Nearly 24 hours after a landslide swept a house and the family inside it into a giant crater, the bodies of a couple and their two children were found by rescuers in the home’s basement.

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 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 hit Monday night at about 9 p.m. According to neighbours, the Prefontaine family was watching TV, probably the Montreal Canadiens’ playoff game—in their basement. The house was taken wholly by the slide, which created a huge scar in the landscape about 450 metres long 15 metres deep.  The area around the house that was swept away by an astonishing landslide Monday night, leaving the family of four unaccounted for, is prone to such natural events.

The risk raises questions as to whether the house should have been built there in the first place.  “After the fact we should all say no,” said Michel C. Dore, coordinator of the province’s civil security department, on the scene yesterday. “But as I’ve said previously, we have many built environments in flood zones and landslide zones all around Quebec.”  Late Tuesday afternoon workers began tearing down the top two floors in their efforts to get to the house, which was partly demolished and separated from the foundation.

The basement was also inundated and earlier Tuesday they were digging canals to try and drain the water to attempt to get inside.  The Prefontaines built the house on the land 15 years ago. Richard Prefontaine was an electrician who working in nearby Ste-Hyacinthe. He and his wife Line had two daughters, Anaïs, in Grade 4, and Amelie, in high school.

The Prefontaines’ neighbour, Herman Gagnon, remembers the terror of Monday night. He and his wife were also watching TV when the ground started to shake. “It was like an earthquake,” he said.  The pipes were making noises, the electricity went out, he recalled. “It was cracking everywhere.”  Gagnon and his wife fled for their lives outside and it was then that saw their neighbours’ house had fallen into what looked like a huge crater.

“It was only when I approached the edge of the crevace that I realized what happened,” he said.  The uncle of Richard Prefontaine, the father of the family, was, like other family members near the scene yesterday, in total shock. “We think things like this only happen to others,” he told La Presse. “We can’t do anything except pray for a miracle.”  Five other houses were evacuated in the area, but Mayor Yves Bellefeuille said these families were expected to be able to return.

Bellefeuille said the community of 1,100, about 75 kilometres northeast of Montreal, is in shock.  Bellefeuille added that officials are trying to “reassure citizens” and that counsellors will be brought in to assist people who need help. A motorist in a red truck was also hit by the slide but survived.  Quebec is one of the regions of the world at greatest risk of landslides, Dore said.  This area has high concentration of clay soil, which can become unstable. Small slides are common, according to residents. But the last slide of this magnitude was 40 years ago.

Dore said the government and municipality will evaluate other buildings in the area to ensure they aren’t also in a precarious position, and whether the areas along the Riviere Salvail Nord, which feeds into the Yamaska River, received proper geotechnical surveys.

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