Hopes fade for missing tourists in deadly Quebec snowmobile accident

Police search for the 5 missing snowmobilers from a helicopter. (Reuters pic)

MONTREAL: Hopes faded Thursday for five French tourists who went missing after their snowmobiles fell through ice while on an excursion in northern Quebec.

As rescue efforts continued, police said they found a total of six snowmobiles at the bottom of Saint-Jean Lake near where the accident occurred.

Canadian authorities also released the names of the five French citizens and those of three others who survived the tragedy on Tuesday evening, as they were led by a Canadian guide.

The eight tourists were from eastern France and their ages ranged from 24 to 58.

Provincial authorities meanwhile pledged to tighten safety measures on the use of snowmobiles.

Efforts to find the five resumed at dawn near the town of Saint-Henri-de-Taillon and included a 30-member team featuring divers and sonar operators.

Dozens of police officers, backed by two helicopters, also were deployed in the area, which is about 225km north of Quebec City.

Canadian police identified the missing snowmobilers as Yan Thierry, 24; Jean-Rene Dumoulin, 24; Arnaud Antoine, 25; Julien Benoit, 34; and Gilles Claude, 58.

Claude, according to French media, is the father of three international biathletes.

The snowmobiles crashed through ice Tuesday evening at a dangerous spot where Saint-Jean Lake funnels into a river. The area is off limits to snowmobiles because the ice is thinner there.

Police said they were alerted by two of the tourists who had rescued a third from the water.

The 42-year-old guide, Benoit L’Esperance of Montreal, was pulled out by emergency response teams and taken to hospital, but he died overnight.

The surviving tourists were briefly hospitalised and treated for exposure and shock.

Investigators do not know why the group left the approved paths to venture “off-piste” at nightfall, but some experts believe they may have been trying to take a shortcut to their destination.

“There was a tragic accident in Canada involving my father,” said one of Claude’s sons, Fabien, in an interview on the channel L’Equipe after winning a bronze medal at Thursday’s Biathlon World Cup in Slovenia.

“This podium is for him, I am sure he is proud of us and I am proud of what I have done today,” he told L’Equipe, speaking with his brother Florent by his side.

Mandatory snowmobile training

Shocked by the accident, the Quebec provincial government on Thursday said it wants to make training mandatory for guides and tourists who use snowmobiles.

“Lessons will be learned and actions will be taken to prevent such tragedies in the future,” said Quebec Tourism Minister Caroline Proulx.

Proulx expressed the government’s “desire” to “make the training of guides for off-road vehicles and tourists who hire them from a company mandatory”, she said, commenting on measures that have been expected for weeks.

In addition, effective Thursday, nature and adventure tourism businesses in the province will require quality and safety certification in order to be eligible for financial assistance from the tourism ministry.

Quebec, with some 33,000km of marked trails in postcard settings, is popular with snowmobile enthusiasts, especially foreigners.

According to the Federation of Snowmobile Clubs of Quebec, snowmobile tourism generates more than C$3 billion a year for the province, and creates jobs for more than 14,000 people.

Each year, however, an average of 20 people die in Quebec due to snowmobile accidents.

In February 2019, two French tourists, a mother and her son, were killed while snowmobiling in a Quebec park.