L’ISLE-VERTE, Qc – Many of the 30 people unaccounted for in a fatal fire in a seniors residence northeast of Quebec City had limited movement and were confined to wheelchairs and walkers, a local official said Thursday.
The early-morning fire in L’Isle-Verte killed three people, although authorities fear the death toll will climb.
Town official Ginette Caron said only five residents in the 52-unit centre were fully autonomous.
“The rest were semi-autonomous, practically no longer autonomous,” Caron told a news conference. “Wheelchairs, walkers, people who can’t move around. People with Alzheimer’s, in the last stages of life.”
At least three people were injured in the blaze in the town of about 1,500. The extent of their injuries was unclear.
A stricken Jacques Berube stood outside the residence as he pondered the fate of his missing 99-year-old mother, Adrienne Dube.
Berube, 70, tried to locate her at a hospital in nearby Riviere-du-Loup as well as at a school in L’Isle-Verte, where residents were initially taken.
Berube was getting ready to hear the worst about his mother, who is blind but still mobile.
“I went near the building; the corner where her room was is burned,” he said. “I’ll just have to wait and see. I don’t like it. But I don’t have any choice. It’s just reality.”
Mario Michaud, who lives across the street from the building, said he witnessed the drama unfold shortly after midnight.
“I got up to go to the toilet and I saw smoke,” Michaud told local newspaper Info Dimanche.
“The fire had started on the second floor. I woke up my girlfriend and called 911. I saw the firefighters and they got to work.
“A woman on the second floor was shouting and she went out on to the balcony. Her son went to get a ladder but he couldn’t get to her. She burned to death.”
Local chief firefighter Yvon Charron called it “a night from hell.”
Provincial police Sgt. Ann Mathieu said the fact 30 people are missing does not necessarily mean they are all dead.
“Some people may have gone elsewhere and there may have been people staying with family,” Mathieu said.
She urged people who have any information on people considered missing to call police.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement offering his condolences.
“On behalf of the entire country, I offer my sincere condolences to the family and friends of those who passed away following the fire at a seniors’ residence in eastern Quebec last night,” he said.
“My thoughts and prayers are also with those who remain unaccounted for and all those who have been injured.”
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois also expressed her sympathy from Davos, Switzerland, where she is attending the World Economic Summit.
“I want to extend my condolences to all the families affected by this terrible fire,” Marois said. “I have been in touch with my office and we are doing everything we can to support the community and families.
“It’s a private centre but we’re talking about human beings, so we’ll do whatever we can. I am deeply saddened by this event.”
The building was home to more than 50 people and also housed a social agency, a pharmacy and a hair salon.
The centre — the Residence du Havre — opened in 1997.
A Quebec Health Department document updated last July said the three-storey building, with one elevator, was constructed entirely of wood.
Most residents were older than 75 and 37 were older than 85. The building included both single rooms and apartment-style dwellings.
The document also indicates the building was only partially fitted with a sprinkler system but did have a fire alarm. There were smoke detectors in every room and in the building itself.
The same document states that two employees tend to work overnight during the week.
Several fire departments in the region were called in to help extinguish the blaze.
Canada has experienced a number of similar tragic fires in recent years.
One in Hawkesbury, Ont., in May 2012 claimed the lives of two people, while one person died in a seniors’ apartment building in London, Ont., last October.
A blaze in June 2009 at a retirement residence in Orillia, Ont., killed four people and left six elderly residents critically injured.
A coroner’s inquest following the fire made 39 recommendations related to automatic sprinklers in retirement homes and assisted living centres.
That led to a new law in Ontario, which took effect on Jan. 1, requiring all retirement homes in the province to have automatic water sprinkler systems.
Elsewhere, a fire at a retirement home in Langley, B.C., in April 2012 left a man dead and sent several other residents to hospital. And a woman in her 70s died in a fire at an Edmonton seniors residence in August 2012.
In August 1980, 21 one people was killed and 35 were injured in a fast-moving nursing home fire in Mississauga, Ont. Authorities said most of the victims died of smoke inhalation and extreme heat in the facility, which housed 198 residents.
In December 1976, fire raced through a two-storey nursing home in Goulds, NL, killing 22 people, including a 105-year-old woman.
The wood frame building in the community just south of St. John’s was home to as many as 30 elderly persons.