Veteran police reporter becomes grieving parent

OTTAWA – Until this weekend, Francois Lessard thought he knew a thing or two about death.

A former police reporter, he had often been forced to carry out the gut-churning task of calling bereaved family members in their time of sorrow and asking for quotes and photographs.

Yesterday, he found himself on the other side.

“Before, I understood how people felt,” he said, “but now I understand and I know, because right now I am going through it.”

On Saturday afternoon, his son, 12-year-old Simon, died shortly after crashing head-first with his toboggan into a tree in Lemoyne Park in Gatineau.

Yesterday, between comforting his wife, France, and his 11-year-old daughter, Nathalie, and making funeral arrangements for his son, Mr. Lessard took time to answer questions from a reporter, the same kind of questions he himself once asked.

“It’s hard to accept,” he said, choking back tears. “It always happens to others, not your family. But this time it is my family.”

Mr. Lessard was a radio reporter for 12 years before moving on to television, where he was a reporter and assignment editor for Radio-Canada for eight years. He stepped down last year, moving into a communications job in the private sector. He made the switch so he could spend more time with his two children.

“And now I have only one kid left,” he said, sobbing. “I don’t wish that to anybody. It is too hard to live.”

Simon left home around 1:30 p.m. on Saturday to go sledding in the park with a friend. Mr. Lessard received a call about half an hour later, informing him his son had been seriously injured.

He rushed to Gatineau hospital and was there as his son was being rolled in on a stretcher with paramedics desperately trying to revive him.

About 3 p.m., a doctor emerged to greet the anxiety-ridden parents.

“She told us she had bad news,” Mr. Lessard recalled. “Simon was in bad shape.”

He had suffered severe head trauma. He had no heartbeat.

The parents were now faced with the heart-wrenching task of deciding whether to continue the resuscitation efforts. They went to see their son for the last time.

“When I saw his body, when I saw the colour of his face and the blood that was coming out from the ears, I said ‘you can stop everything — it is too late,'” he said.

Mr. Lessard then directed the doctors to donate his son’s organs, so his death could at least help other sick children. But the doctors denied him even this heartfelt gesture. Simon had already lost too much blood. His heart, liver, kidneys and lungs could not be used. The only part that could be donated was a cornea.

“It was a double shock for us,” he said. “Dying so young and not being able to save other lives.”

Despite a large sign in French that warns the hill is not maintained for sledding, and the hazard of two trees stuck in the path, Lemoyne Park is a popular weekend attraction for area children and parents who come to enjoy the beautiful view and glide down the deep slopes. Even a Gatineau police officer yesterday said he goes tobogganing at the park with his children.

A day after the accident, only a handful of spectators were at the normally crowded park yesterday. Peering over the makeshift police barricade, they gazed down at the snow-covered slope and the two trees.

“It’s a silly accident that shouldn’t have happened,” said Gil Boisvert, who came to the park with his wife. “I think they should remove the trees.”

Several years ago, Mr. Boisvert said, his young daughter narrowly averted tragedy when a parent stepped into the path of her toboggan as she sped toward the trees.

The park is now temporarily shut down, police lines and fences to remain until an investigation is completed.

Gatineau Mayor Yves Ducharme said it was too early to tell what exactly happened. He said the city will have a full report today on the incident. In the meantime, he asked every citizen to look after their own safety.

“We can’t fence every park. We cannot secure all the land,” he said. “People need to follow signs and be as careful as can be. We don’t put signs for the fun of it. We put signs because we know there is potential danger.”

Mr. Lessard said he did not know the exact circumstances of the accident. At this point, he said, he had no interest in finding out.

“Our son is dead and we have to go on with our life,” he said.

But, he did add he had just one wish — removing the two trees to ensure such a tragedy never happens again.

“Now that our son has died, I think it will be a good idea for city officials to have a look at it,” he said. “Things change when people die. Unfortunately, somebody had to die before someone will take a look at this matter.

“I’m not mad at anyone,” he added. “I only ask: ‘Could somebody take care of it?'”

Mr. Ducharme said removing the trees was one of the options the city would discuss today.

Mr. Lessard, though, acknowledged that, in any case, it was too late for him and his family.

“We’re going to miss him a lot,” he said, before breaking down in tears. “He was too young to die. He was just too young to die.”