L’ISLE-VERTE, Que. – The official death toll from a fire that roared through a seniors’ residence last week climbed to 14 on Monday as emergency workers continued to comb through the rubble.
Quebec provincial police also said 18 people were still missing and presumed dead.
Police and firefighters used special machines that pump out hot air to a temperature above 300 C to melt thick ice coating the ruins.
The work has been slow and painstaking, with workers being given periodic breaks as they brave bitterly cold temperatures and strong winds in L’Isle-Verte in eastern Quebec.
The fire broke out shortly after midnight Thursday and spread quickly through the 52-unit residence. Many of the elderly occupants had limited mobility and needed canes, wheelchairs or walkers to get around. One woman was reportedly blind.
Some relatives who raced to the scene to help out said they saw their family members die as they pleaded for help from balconies.
Provincial police say they have interviewed about 100 witnesses. No exact cause of the fire has yet been determined.
A spokesman for Stephen Harper confirmed Monday the prime minister will attend a commemorative ceremony in L’Isle-Verte this Saturday.
Mayor Ursule Theriault said Monday she was satisfied with a meeting she had with provincial Health Minister Rejean Hebert to guarantee the community’s needs would be met.
Hebert said it is necessary to find the survivors of the blaze a permanent place to stay.
“We’re working to relocate them permanently so they aren’t moved several times,” said Hebert, who met with some survivors.
In the hours following the fire, those who escaped were sent to either hospitals, other seniors’ residences or motels.
About 20 health professionals are also making the rounds in L’Isle-Verte, talking to townsfolk to make sure they are OK.
They will also be checking in with children in the local schools.
“Children often show symptoms of problematic family situations so it’s important to listen,” Hebert said.
“I am appalled by what has happened,” said Hebert, who is a doctor with a specialty in geriatrics. “It’s a catastrophe that makes me relive Lac-Megantic. These are the sort of disasters we never like to see and which are extremely sad.”
Last July, 47 people were killed in Lac-Megantic when a runaway train loaded with fuel derailed and exploded, devastating the town’s core.
In Quebec City, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard said there should be a public inquiry into the L’Isle-Verte tragedy.