L’ISLE-VERTE, Qc – Just six months after Canadians were rocked by the Lac-Megantic tragedy, another Quebec town found itself waiting to learn how many people it had lost after fire ripped through a seniors’ residence Thursday.
And just like in Lac-Megantic, the destruction struck shortly after midnight.
The unsuspecting community this time was L’Isle-Verte, a town of only 1,500 people in Quebec’s scenic Lower St. Lawrence.
As firefighters doused the towering flames, grim-faced provincial police confirmed that three people were dead and another 30 were missing.
Parts of the Residence du Havre, which opened in 1997, had sprinklers, while others didn’t.
The local fire chief said sprinklers did go off, triggering the fire alarm and allowing firefighters to gain access to about one-third of the building.
Thursday’s blaze erupted in the old part of the three-storey building, which a Quebec Health Department document from last July states was constructed of wood.
The document also says the building had a fire alarm and that each room was equipped with a smoke detector.
Many of the residents were over 85 and all but a handful had limited movement, being confined to wheelchairs and walkers.
The bitterly cold temperatures contrasted with the roaring flames that illuminated the night sky as firefighters poured gallons of water on the burning building.
As morning dawned and the fire was brought under control, the burned section of the facility resembled a macabre ice palace, with sheets of ice and thick icicles covering the structure.
Town official Ginette Caron said only five residents in the 52-unit centre were fully mobile.
“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, although the extent of their injuries was unclear.
On Thursday afternoon, Quebec provincial police were encouraging relatives of the residents to meet with them at a local school to help in their investigation. A local church was also opened for those who wanted to pray.
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.”
Retired RCMP officer Pierre Filion, who had a cousin and an aunt living in the residence, said the tragedy had shaken the tightly knit community to the core.
“Everybody knows everybody,” he said in an interview.”…It’s a small community. It’s going to take a long time to start living normally.”
Filion said his two missing relatives who lived there were both in their 70s.
“I went there 15 minutes ago and the only thing we saw was smoke and smoke,” he said.
“It’s a very bad day for L’Isle-Verte. It’s a very bad day for L’Isle-Verte. It’s one of those days you should forget.”
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.”
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.
Most residents were older than 75 and 37 were older than 85. The building included both single rooms and apartment-style dwellings.
Several fire departments in the region were called in to help extinguish the blaze.
Firefighters were unable to carry out a complete evacuation of the residence because the intensity of the fire limited their access.
“It was a total fire,” said L’Iles-Verte fire chief Yvan Charron. “A third of the building was still standing and that was evacuated 100 per cent, but the cold (definitely) complicated things.”
Firefighters arrived within eight minutes of getting the alarm and a total of six municipalities sent crews to battle the blaze, which was in the centre of the tiny community. Several nearby houses were also evacuated as a precaution and their residents were sent to motels.
The fire broke out in -20 C temperatures, causing equipment to freeze, Charron said.
While the fire was under control, some places were still too hot or unstable to allow police investigators to examine them.
“There were trucks that were frozen, pumps that were frozen, hoses, but we were able to thaw them out.”
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.
The Lac-Megantic disaster in July saw 47 people killed when an out-of-control train loaded with fuel derailed and exploded.