L’ISLE-VERTE, Quebec (AP) — Using steam to melt the ice, investigators searched the frozen-over ruins of a retirement home Friday for victims of a fire that left about 35 people feared dead and cast such a pall over the village of 1,500 that psychologists were sent door to door.
“People are in a state of shock,” Quebec Minister of Social Services Veronique Hivon said.
The cause of the early-morning blaze Thursday was under investigation, and police asked the public for any videos or photos of the tragedy that might yield clues.
At least five people were killed and about 30 others were missing after the flames raced through the three-story building in below-zero cold Fahrenheit. Canada’s prime minister said there was little doubt the death toll would climb.
Witnesses told horrific tales of seeing people die. Most of the 50 or so residents probably never had a chance to escape — many 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.
The spray from firefighters’ hoses left the senior citizens home resembling a macabre snow palace, the ruins encased in thick white ice dripping with icicles.
Search teams of police, firefighters and coroners slowly and methodically went through the ruins, 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.)
Hivon said many of the village’s volunteer firefighters had relatives at the retirement home. She said psychologists will be knocking on doors throughout the community.
“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,” she said.
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 cold caused fire equipment to freeze, and firefighters used so much water that they drained the town reservoir.
About 20 residents of the retirement home were taken to safety.
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.
Roch Bernier and Irene Plante, the owners of the retirement home, said in a statement they are cooperating 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.
Associated Press Writer Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.