32 presumed dead in Quebec fire, 8 confirmed
L'ISLE-VERTE, Quebec — The painstaking search through the iced-over remains of a burned-out Quebec retirement home resumed Saturday morning, with friends and relatives of the missing awaiting news. Just eight bodies of the 32 presumed dead have been recovered.
A massive blaze swept through the three-story building in L'Isle-Verte, about 140 miles (225 kilometers) northeast of Quebec City early Thursday. Quebec Provincial Police Lt. Guy Lapointe at a Saturday news conference lowered the number of missing from about 30 to 24 based on more detailed information.
Officials have formally identified two of the victims, with their names to be released later Saturday.
"The 24 people that are still missing, I think we can assume the worst. We're not going to confirm any deaths until we've actually recovered the remains," Lapointe said.
The cause of the massive blaze that swept through the Residence du Havre was under investigation, and police asked the public for any videos or photos that might yield clues. Lapointe declined to confirm reports that the fire began in the room of a resident who was smoking a cigarette, but said that is one possibility.
Search teams of police, firefighters and coroners slowly and methodically picked their way through the ruins, working in shifts in the extreme cold with temperatures hovering around minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 degrees Celsius) Friday.
As crews used steam to melt thick sheets of ice coating the rubble, Marc-Henri Saindon waited for his mother's body to be recovered. Marie-Jeanne Gagnon, five months shy of her 100th birthday, had moved to the home on New Year's Eve, her son said.
"She really liked it there. She was well treated and she had friends there," Saindon said Friday.
Spray from firefighters' hoses left the home resembling a macabre snow palace, the ruins encased in thick white ice dripping with icicles. Workers took a break over night because of the freezing cold.
The tragedy cast such a pall over the village of 1,500 that psychologists were sent door to door.
"This is a horrible tragedy," Mayor Ursule Theriault said.
Witnesses told horrific tales of people trapped and killed by the flames. Many of the 50 or so residents were over 85 and used wheelchairs or walkers. Some had Alzheimer's.
Pascal Fillion, who lives nearby, said he saw someone use a ladder to try to rescue a man cornered on his third-floor balcony. The man was crying out for help before he fell to the ground, engulfed in flames, Fillion said.
"I lost my friends," said Nicole Belanger, who worked at the home part-time for the past four years. "The residents loved us and we loved them."
Quebec Minister of Social Services Veronique Hivon said many of the village's volunteer firefighters had relatives at the retirement home.
"People are in a state of shock," she said. "We want them to know the services are there by going door to door. It's an important building that's a part of their community that just disappeared."
Hivon said the home was up to code and had a proper evacuation plan. A Quebec Health Department document indicates the home which has operated since 1997, had only a partial sprinkler system. The home expanded around 2002, and the sprinklers in the new part of the building triggered the alarm.
The owners of the residence made a public statement Friday for the first time since the fire, offering their condolences to victims' families.
Roch Bernier and Irene Plante thanked firefighters, volunteers and the residence's employees and said they are co-operating fully with authorities.
Father Gilles Frigon, the town's Catholic priest, said he would hold a private Mass for the families of the victims on Sunday and said next Saturday a public memorial with politicians and dignitaries will take place.
The fire came six months after 47 people were killed in the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, when a train carrying oil derailed and exploded.
In 1969, a nursing home fire in the community of Notre-Dame-du-Lac, Quebec, claimed 54 lives.