Montreal, Canada, Jan 24 – Hopes faded Thursday for five French tourists who went missing after their snowmobiles fell through ice into a frozen lake while on an excursion in Quebec.
Police said they had found a total of six snowmobiles at the bottom of Saint-Jean Lake near where the accident occurred.
On the ground, authorities scaled back most search operations late Thursday and said they would resume again in the morning.
The group consisted of eight French tourists, three of whom survived, and their Canadian guide, who died after they crashed through ice while snowmobiling Tuesday evening at a dangerous spot where the lake funnels into a river.
Provincial authorities pledged to tighten safety measures on the use of snowmobiles Thursday as a 30-member team, including divers and sonar operators, carried out search efforts.
Dozens of police officers, backed by two helicopters, were also deployed in the area, near the town of Saint-Henri-de-Taillon, about 225 kilometers (140 miles) north of Quebec City.
However hope was dimming of finding the five, who crashed in an area of water off limits to snowmobiles because the ice is thinner there.
Canadian police identified the missing snowmobilers as Yan Thierry, 24; Jean-Rene Dumoulin, 24; Arnaud Antoine, 25; Julien Benoit, 34; and Gilles Claude, 58.
Investigators earlier in the day said they were still hopeful that the French tourists managed to find refuge on an island or a chalet but had been unable to communicate.
– Straying ‘off-piste’ –
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 died overnight.
The surviving tourists were briefly hospitalized 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.
One of the missing, Gilles Claude, is the father of three international biathletes, according to French media.
“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 –
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.
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 33,000 kilometers (20,505 miles) 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 CAN$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.