Quebec retirement home turns to ice as crews fight deadly fire

Quebec retirement home turns to ice as crews fight deadly fire

Credit: AFP/Getty Images

canadian firefighters douse the burnt remains of a retirement home in L'Isle-Verte on January 23, 2014. Firefighters searched the ashes of a Quebec retirement home that burned to the ground on a bleak midwinter night, leaving more than 30 residents feared dead. Officials said the remains of three victims had been recovered and some 30 more were unaccounted for, while the local fire chief said rescuers were now searching for bodies. AFP PHOTO/Remi SENECHAL (Photo credit should read Remi Senechal/AFP/Getty Images)

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by Associated Press

WCNC.com

Posted on January 25, 2014 at 10:09 AM

Updated Saturday, Jan 25 at 10:15 AM

L'ISLE-VERTE, Quebec (AP) -- The painstaking search through the iced-over remains of a burned-out Quebec retirement home resumed Saturday morning, with friends and relatives of some 30 missing people awaiting news. Eight people had 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 moved to the home on New Year's Eve, her son said.

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"She really liked it there. She was well treated and she had friends there," Saindon said.

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

Search teams of police, firefighters and coroners slowly and methodically picked their way through, working in shifts in the extreme cold about 140 miles (225 kilometers) northeast of Quebec City. The afternoon temperature was around 3 degrees F (minus 16 Celsius.)

Quebec Provincial Police Lt. Guy Lapointe said authorities decided to give the search crew a break from the brutal cold and the difficult work overnight.

The work is specialized, and only a limited number of people 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.

Spray from firefighters' hoses left the 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.

"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.

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.

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Associated Press Writer Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.

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