L’ISLE-VERTE, Qc – Investigators continued their painstaking search on Friday for victims of the fatal fire that devastated a seniors’ home and has left a Quebec village grieving for the dead and the missing.
Frigid temperatures were hampering the work of search crews in L’Isle-Verte as they sifted through the icy rubble of what, until tragedy struck Thursday morning, was a lively residence for the elderly.
Authorities used steam to melt the ice and to preserve the bodies they were looking for in the Residence du Havre debris.
“The difficulty we have is that we want to be able to find victims but we want to respect the integrity of these potential victims,” Quebec provincial police Lt. Guy Lapointe told a news conference.
“So the steam allows us to melt the ice…without damaging any element that might allow us to go forward in the investigation.”
No official cause has been given for the blaze, which killed five people but more than likely has claimed the lives of about another 30.
“Nothing has been ruled out,” Lapointe replied when asked about a report that a faulty heater may have caused the fire.
Lapointe said there is no way of knowing when investigators would be able to retrieve bodies.
“The cold is extreme, the equipment could freeze, we could run into other issues, so at this point it’s really difficult for me to set a timetable of any kind,” he said.
While some 30 people are believed missing, Lapointe said that number could fluctuate.
“People might have been away,” he noted. “We want to make sure that everyone who lived there was there or wasn’t there. But also the people who might not have lived there who might have come over to spend the night there. We need to check on that too.”
Lapointe also called for people who took photos or shot video when the fire broke out to contact authorities to give them a better idea of what exactly might have happened.
Most of the residents probably never had a chance when the blaze erupted — many were over 85, had little or no mobility and were confined to wheelchairs or walkers.
A Quebec Health Department document indicates the residence, which has operated since 1997, had only a partial sprinkler system.
The facility expanded around 2002 and the sprinklers in the new part of the building triggered the alarm.
Fire chief Yvan Charron said his colleagues were able to get to the third of the building that remained standing, while the rest was inaccessible.
Meanwhile, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois announced she will cut short her European trip by 24 hours in order to return home and visit L’Isle-Verte on Sunday, when a religious service is planned in the village.
Marois, who was in Switzerland this week for the World Economic Summit, cancelled meetings scheduled in Zurich on Saturday.
Marois told a news conference she has been following the situation closely as well as the measures announced by her cabinet ministers to help L’Isle-Verte.
One of those, Veronique Hivon, said Friday that psychological aid is being made available for those in need.
The junior social services minister said the extreme cold means there is a greater danger of people retreating into themselves than in the aftermath of last July’s deadly train disaster in Lac-Megantic, Que.