Part 4: The CORONER and the WITNESSES.
The next step in my search was to obtain a copy of the coroner’s report. After an initial demand at the coroner’s office, I was directed to the Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec and within a few days I received the report, all 300 pages of it.
The first document provided was the final verdict which came to the conclusion that the death was accidental. The second document explained why an inquest should be held: “there was a fire in the residence and the death of Paul Comtois was not natural but caused by carbon monoxide asphyxiation, carbonization and mutilation by fire”. The minutes went on to explain that the inquest would rely on the fire investigators’ report and the questioning of 19 witnesses: a Provincial Police investigator, a pathologist and a chemist followed by Mireille, Paul Comtois’s daughter, who lived in the mansion at the time and was injured on the day of the fire, followed by testimonies by police, firemen and staff who were present that night.
Before the transcripts of the testimonies, I found the summary of an interrogation of Paul Comtois’ wife, Irène Gill. I can understand that they would have sent someone to obtain her testimony; she was 75, still under shock and vulnerable. In the summary we learn that she and her husband, along with the Stearns, friends staying at the mansion on the night of the fire, had been out for the evening and had returned at 11:00 p.m. Everything was normal and they all went to their respective rooms. Shortly after, Irène heard her daughter Mireille, screaming that there was fire in the stairs. She went to her husband’s room and woke him up. He then went into the hall and that was the last time she saw him. She went back to her own room to get dressed and within seconds, the night watchman, Conrad Soucy, arrived and led her out of the house through the servant’s wing.
A number of questions followed, all related to the electrical installations in the mansion: “No, we did not use space heaters in our rooms since the heating system was repaired … Yes, there was an interruption of electricity during a reception on January 20th … No we never complained about the electrical system except on Christmas Eve last year when we smelled smoke; we found the problem in the wiring of a stove used by the night watchman and located in the greenhouse.” The final questions were obviously for the record and she confirmed that Paul Comtois was in good health except for an acute pulmonary edema (accumulation of serous fluid in the lungs) that occurred 2 years ago; Mr. Comtois had stopped smoking at that time on his doctor’s advice. She also confirmed that she did not smoke nor did their friends, the Stearns.
The first testimony at the inquest was that of Sergeant Léopold Désilets, a photographer with the Quebec Provincial Police who submitted a series of photographs as evidence. The first series, taken on the day of the fire, showed the destroyed building and a charred body; other photographs were taken a few days later at the request of a forensic chemist, Bernard Bakelet. The photographs showed the electrical boxes on the outside and inside of the cold storage room in the basement as well as pictures of the furnaces which all seemed intact thus eliminating the possibility that they might have exploded.
The following witness was Mireille who was questioned about her ordeal; we learned that she and her father had gone to wake up their guests, the Stearns, hoping to escape by the emergency staircase located at the end of the mansion. When they tried to use that exit, they saw that the fire was already in the stairs. Mister Comtois told her and the Stearns to get out of the building by the windows onto the roof of an outside veranda. Mireille then states: ‘I obeyed and turned in his direction to see him pushing the curtain to the chapel … I saw the light of the sanctuary lamp. I then jumped onto the veranda roof. A few seconds later I heard screams that I assumed that they were my father’s.’ I finished reading this testimony with a lump in my stomach thinking of the way my grandfather had died and the ordeal my favourite aunt Mireille had lived through.
The testimony by Mireille must have contributed to the idea that Paul Comtois had gone back for the Eucharist? But I remain a skeptic and I continue to think that he went back with the intention of finding his wife Irène. He had no way of knowing that she had been saved by the night watchman Conrad Soucy.
In the next blog to be published Saturday: the expert witnesses.