The Quebec government has launched an investigation into the response that left hundreds of vehicles stranded on a snowy Montreal highway.
The Quebec government has apologized, sanctioned two employees and is investigating its mishandling of a winter storm this week that stranded hundreds of vehicles for more than 12 hours on a Montreal highway.
The debacle on Highway 13, a route that runs from Montreal in the south to the populous suburb of Laval in the north, has already resulted in sanctions against a bureaucrat in Quebec’s Transport Ministry and the reassignment of a Sûreté du Québec officer who has been blamed for the delay in evacuating motorists and passengers from the highway.
The provincial government has also requested an external investigation into what the different agencies and jurisdictions did and did not do between 6 p.m. Tuesday, when two tractor trailers became immobilized in the snow storm, and Wednesday morning, when the last of the passengers were evacuated and their vehicles towed.
“Yes, we were faced with an exceptional situation, but the response to that exceptional situation fell short,” said Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard.
“Faced with the evidence of this shambles—and I don’t think there is any other word for it—in the name of the government and myself I want to apologize to those people who were put in danger or injured.”
The internal provincial police investigation has already resulted in a decision to place the officer in charge of the SQ’s response on administrative duties, said spokesperson Guy Lapointe.
Lapointe said the force has determined that the officer should have made a much earlier decision to shift the focus of the police response from clearing the road to instead evacuate the people in the roughly 300 cars stuck on the highway.
“If that had started earlier it would have been finished earlier and people would not have been stuck there for as long,” he said.
The highway blockage began Tuesday night when two truckers came to a halt in the southbound lanes of the highway. It was initially believed there had been an accident, but that was not the case. Lapointe said that the drivers refused to have their vehicles towed, despite tow trucks that were on the scene. He said investigators are looking into whether those refusals were criminal acts that could result in charges.
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One driver who got stuck on the highway wrote on Facebook that she had left work at 8 p.m. Tuesday for a drive that normally takes 20 minutes. Instead, she only made it home at 5 a.m. Wednesday morning.
According to a preliminary timeline of events released by Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, the first conference call between city and provincial officials shortly before midnight on Tuesday included representatives from the provincial transport ministry.
Those officials mentioned that Highway 13 was closed and there had been difficulties arranging for plowing services from a private company under contract to do the work.
But no one mentioned that there were drivers and passengers stranded on the road. Transport ministry officials did not participate in a second conference call at 1:40 a.m. Wednesday.
The City of Montreal timeline said that 317 calls had been placed to 9-1-1 for assistance in areas of Montreal that are the responsibility of the provincial police.
In addition, the officers on patrol along Highway 13 placed about 100 calls themselves to the transportation ministry in an attempt to get snowplows to the scene, to no avail, Montreal’s La Presse newspaper reported Thursday.
It was only at 4:30 a.m.—more than 10 hours after the crisis began—that provincial police took the initiative to contact Montreal firefighters for help evacuating the drivers and passengers who hadn’t already abandoned their vehicles.
The fire department dispatched two trucks initially and then, within half an hour, sent another three trucks as well as a bus equipped with water, blankets and toilets.