Grim search continues for Canada fire survivors

2014-01-25 12:18
Fire-fighters continue to work at the scene of a fatal fire at a seniors residence in L'Isle-Verte in Quebec. (Jacques Boissinot, AP)

Fire-fighters continue to work at the scene of a fatal fire at a seniors residence in L'Isle-Verte in Quebec. (Jacques Boissinot, AP)

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L'Isle-Verte - The painstaking search through the iced-over remains of a burned-out Quebec retirement home resumes on Saturday morning, with friends and relatives of some 30 missing people awaiting word. Eight people have been confirmed dead.

As crews used steam Friday 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 just 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. Her neighbour of many years was living at the residence," Saindon said. "Lucid. A memory that was still really good."

The cause of the massive blaze that swept through the three-story building early on Thursday was under investigation, and police asked the public for any videos or photos that might yield clues.

Search teams of police, fire-fighters and coroners slowly and methodically picked their way through, working in shifts in the extreme cold about 225km northeast of Quebec City. The afternoon temperature was around -16°C.

Psychologists

The confirmed number of dead climbed to eight with the discovery of three more bodies.

Quebec Provincial Police Lieutenant Guy Lapointe said exhausted investigators would suspend the search overnight and resume on Saturday. He said authorities decided to give the search crew a break from the brutal cold and the difficult work.

The work is specialised, and there is a limited number of people who can be assigned to the task, he said.

"The decision was taken that it was better for the safety, for the well-being of our crew, to let them rest," Lapointe said. "Meanwhile, we're looking at bringing in more equipment for the steam."

The spray from fire-fighters' hoses left the senior citizens home resembling a macabre snow palace, the ruins encased in thick white ice dripping with icicles.

The tragedy cast such a pall over the village of 1 500 that psychologists were sent door to door.

"It's absolute desolation," 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.

Sprinkler system

Agnes Fraser's 82-year-old brother, Claude, was among the missing. She said she knew she would never see him again because he lived in the section of the building destroyed by the flames.

"It's done," Fraser said.

Quebec Minister of Social Services Veronique Hivon said many of the village's volunteer fire-fighters 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.

Roch Bernier and Irene Plante, the owners of the home, said in a statement that they are co-operating with authorities and offered their condolences to the victims' families.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, in Switzerland this week for a world economic summit, said she will cut her trip short by 24 hours to return home and visit L'Isle-Verte on Sunday, when a religious service is planned in the village.

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.
- AP
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