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Florent Cantin, the 21-year-old unemployed laborer who has pleaded...

CHIBOUGAMAU, Que. -- Florent Cantin, the 21-year-old unemployed laborer who has pleaded guilty in connection with last year's Chapais tragedy, says he was 'just playing with fire' when he started the blaze that killed 48 people.

'I was just doing the same as anyone else, playing with fire,' Cantin said in court Tuesday. 'I did it just as someone else might light a napkin.'

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The fire, which affected almost every family in the isolated mining town of 3,700, began in dried pine bough holiday decorations and swept through the wooden Opemiska Club during a 1980 New Year's Eve party.

Cantin, 21, has pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the asphyxiation death of one victim, Robin Desjardins, 17, and was expected to be sentenced later this week by Sessions Court Judge Georges Chasse.

Witnesses testified earlier they had seen Cantin set fire to the pine branches in the community hall, jammed with 350 townspeople, moments before the fire ripped through the building. The force of the blaze was so great many victims were charred beyond recognition.

Under questioning from his lawyer Mario Bilodeau, Cantin said that had he realized the repercussions he 'would never have done it.'

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Cantin was described by his probation officer, Andre Simard, as a very quiet, 'non-aggressive' man who was no danger to society. He said Cantin was an introverted character and urged the judge to pass a lenient sentence.

The manslaughter charge is punishable by a maximum term of life imprisonment.

Earlier in the day, the court was told the Quebec government had already paid more than $2 million to fire victims and their families and was expected to pay $3 million by the time all claims were settled.

'Cantin already carries on his shoulders a debt of $3 million,' Bilodeau said.

None of the four witnesses for the crown, who appeared earlier in the day, expressed any anger toward Cantin, who was removed from his home in Chapais to a rehabilitation center on the Ile d'Orleans near Quebec City for his own safety after the charges were laid.

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