On 1 July, the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region was hit by a torrential downpour that lasted only a few hours. The flash flood caused a landslide that swept away part of Notre-Dame Street in Rivière-Éternité. Three people were missing. On that day, Keven Gagné, Production Supervisor with Rio Tinto SPS’s SPC team, and his partner Frédéric Thibault, both firefighters with Régie intermunicipale de sécurité incendie du Fjord, a local firefighting service, braved the elements to help the victims.
Two people died in the tragic incident. But Jean-Philippe Caty, a resident of Quebec City, owes his life to Gagné and Thibault, who stopped at nothing to get him out of the river, where he was trapped with both femurs broken.
Keven Gagné has been a volunteer firefighter since 2008 and loves this job. “Our instincts guided us and encouraged us to go on […]. We didn’t know if anyone was still out there. We were right to go look, because that’s why Jean-Philippe is still alive today.”
The summer of 2023 had already put the firefighters at the Saint-Félix-d’Otis fire station on the alert, with the number of calls almost doubling due to the forest fires in Ferland-Boilleau and Rivière-Éternité. But there was nothing to suggest that this Saturday in July would turn into an extreme rescue operation.
On two occasions, Gagné and Thibault considered turning back, the unknown being too great and the danger, everywhere.
“We make really good decisions, but adrenaline definitely affects how we think in the moment.”
A father of two children, aged 8 and 5, Gagné now realises the scale of the emergency that he and his partner faced.
“When you have to deal with big events like this, you need a lot of composure. There was a huge element of the unknown. We were working alongside people who were injured, in a state of shock, missing or dead. We were also at risk: even if we consider the risk factor, the fact remains that we also put ourselves in danger.”
A full two weeks after the rescue operation, as the dust started to settle, Gagné began to replay the events of that day in his mind. He thought about what he could have done differently and realised just how great the danger was. Understandably, this helped him to process what he had lived through that day.
“I feel that I did my duty. My goal as a volunteer firefighter was to save a life one day. If I had to stop doing this job today, I’d do it with my head held high, knowing that I’d achieved what I set out to do.”
Gagné and Thibault kept in touch with Caty, who would not have survived without their efforts.
“We send each other text messages every week to check on each other. Jean-Philippe has also invited us to visit him and his friends and family in Quebec City. It’s a step towards letting go of all this, for him and for us.”
Combining work and passion
Gagné is in charge of the Laterrière Works fire brigade and is grateful that Rio Tinto has given him the opportunity to help the public and live out his passion.
“I’d like to thank the company for allowing me to fulfil my potential outside of work and for its unwavering support. Everyone, supervisors and colleagues alike, shares my pride in what I’ve achieved. I bring my experiences back to the plant and can help others understand. They appreciate the insight, and it helps us all grow together.” He will remember this milestone event for a long time to come.