Assisted by two local residents, an Eeyou-Eenou Police officer carried a mother and two children, aged 6 and 3, to safety from their burning house in Waskaganish May 25.
Officer Bruce Wapachee was on his routine morning patrol when he noticed plumes of black smoke billowing from the rear of the residence on Broadback Street rented by Julie-Ann Stephen, 36, a mother of four.
Harry Erless and another unnamed local resident joined in to help the 21-year-old rookie officer from Oujé-Bougoumou break down the door to the house to verify if anyone was inside.
“The quick thinking and bravery of Officer Wapachee and the two community members saved the lives of a three-year-old, a six-year-old and their mother,” said Lieutenant Randy Kitchen of the Eeyou Eenou Police Force.
Erless and the other man assisted the officer in gaining entry to the building. First, one of the men smashed a ground-floor window and discovered Stephen, who had been asleep in a downstairs bedroom along with her two young children. At the same time, the other rescuer broke open the front door and entered the residence together with Wapachee.
According to Kitchen, Wapachee and Erless then rushed through the heat smoke to the downstairs bedroom. Wapachee secured and evacuated the children while Erless, unsure of Stephen’s condition, took no chances and carried the mother to safety as well.
The man who smashed the window was aware that Stephen had four children and risked venturing upstairs into suffocating clouds of heavy smoke toward the source of the blaze, to locate the other two Stephen children. Fortunately, Stephen’s two eldest children, aged 16 and 11, were not inside as they are both living away from home, in Gatineau and Eastmain respectively.
Shortly after the evacuation, the fire brigade arrived and successfully put out the fire. Unfortunately by the time they arrived the house had already been decimated, and the structure in addition to what household items remained in the house sustained irreparable water damage.
Wapachee then drove the family to the health clinic where an on-call nurse examined Stephen and her children. The mother and children reportedly sustained no injuries from the fire.
Crime scene analysts from the Surété du Québec (SQ) arrived on June 1 and began an investigation into the house the following day. They determined the fire originated from one of the rooms upstairs.
The SQ investigators removed evidence from the scene for further testing and analysis, including the charred remains of something they suspect as the root cause of the fire.
“It was an unidentified object,” said Kitchen. “It’s flat as a pancake.”
Conclusive results of the investigation have yet to be made public.
Although receiving no physical injuries, the future of Stephen and her two youngest children remains uncertain.
“People need to understand they are victims,” said Kitchen. “There’s a three-year-old, a six-year-old, and a mother and they lost most of their belongings in the fire.”
Michelle Stephen, a cousin of Julie-Ann, who works as an announcer and producer for Waskaganish Community Radio, is accepting donations on the family’s behalf.
“We need furniture for them and clothing,” said Michelle. “They lost everything in the fire.”
According to Michelle Stephen, Julie-Ann, who lost her own mother seven months ago to natural causes, has no income to provide for her children aside from what she receives from the provincial government for child assistance.
Michelle said Julie-Ann and her two children are staying at a boarding home in Waskaganish for the time being, and that since the community is experiencing a housing crisis it is difficult to know how long Julie-Ann and her children will have to remain there.
Those who wish to make a donation are encouraged to contact Michelle Stephen at (819) 895-4630.