Firefighters and police officers in the Quebec city of Sherbrooke have apologized for mistaking the badly burned body of a missing woman for a torched mannequin and discarding it in a dumpster last week.
The woman’s body was discovered after a brush fire near a factory in Sherbrooke, roughly 150 km southeast of Montreal, on July 23. Several workers on break at the factory called 911 saying they saw someone set fire to a mannequin, according to CBC News. Firefighters arrived first on scene, but then called police to assist them.
“After discussions between the two departments, it was agreed that the mannequin would be disposed of in the container at the Sherbrooke police service, which cannot be accessed by members of the public,” Danny McConnell, Sherbrooke’s police chief, explained to reporters at a press conference on Thursday.
But roughly four hours after firefighters put the woman’s body into the container—a dumpster—a man reported to police that his partner had gone missing, according to CBC News. Police ended up tracking the cellphone signal of the woman to her car, which happened to be parked near the site of the fire.
One of the police officers who was at the recovery of the woman’s body noticed a resemblance between the description in the missing person’s report and the mannequin, McConnell told reporters. At 6:30 p.m. that night, over eight hours after the body was first discovered, police retrieved it from the container and identified her.
The Sherbrooke police force considered the woman’s death to be “suspicious,” McConnell told reporters on Thursday, but the Quebec coroner’s office is currently investigating—a sign the death is not considered criminal. Quebec’s police watchdog agency, the Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes (the Bureau of Independent Investigations), has also been contacted about the case, according to the Montreal Gazette.
Police haven’t confirmed the woman’s name or age. According to TVA Nouvelles, a French language TV station, the woman was in her 60s and is believed to have ended her life. Both McConnell and Stéphane Simoneau, head of Sherbrooke’s fire department, refused to take questions from reporters at Thursday’s announcement.
Sherbrooke police service declined a VICE World News request for comment.
Critics online wondered how police and fire services managed to mistake a woman’s body for a mannequin. In a tweet, the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, an online information centre focused on preventing gender-based killings, simply said: “No words, just disgust for incompetence.”
However, Dr. Robert Nicholson, an anatomical pathologist at Quebec’s Granby Hospital, told CBC News it might not be impossible for someone to mistake a burnt body for a burnt mannequin—although he stressed he didn’t know details of what happened in this case.
When a human body burns, it can shrink and shrivel. The body is mostly water, Nicholson said, and much of that disappears.
“It doesn’t look like a normal person and it doesn’t feel like a normal person,” Nicholson said.
Video from CBC News at the scene showed two bouquets of flowers at the burnt edge of a small patch of woods. On one of the cards, someone had written in French: “To my beloved sister. I will never forget you.”
McConnell apologized for mistaking the woman’s body for a mannequin during Thursday’s announcement. “Our hearts are with the family, her partner, and the kids in this very tragic situation,” he said.
Simoneau, who also appeared alongside McConnell at the announcement, said he was stunned by what happened.
“First responders are in a state of shock,” he told reporters.
This article has been updated throughout to reflect recent developments.
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