L’ISLE-VERTE, Que. – A Quebec community joined the co-owner of a destroyed seniors’ home Sunday in mourning those who died after his building was engulfed by flames.
Roch Bernier, who had avoided the public eye following last Thursday’s deadly overnight fire, addressed a church packed with more than 1,000 people in the village of L’Isle-Verte. The community itself has a population of about 1,500.
Bernier’s surprise appearance at the ceremony drew a collective gasp from attendees that was quickly followed by a standing ovation.
“Inside each individual here in the church, there is enormous pain,” said Bernier, who ran the 52-unit Residence du Havre with his ex-spouse, Irene Plante.
“We will have very difficult moments, but we will live them together.”
Police have confirmed that 10 people died in the blaze and another 22 were still missing and presumed dead. For days, search crews have struggled to find human remains amid piles of rubble, ash and thick sheets of ice.
Bernier kept a low-profile following the fire and a note had even been posted on his front door advising media to stay away because of the ongoing police investigation into the fire.
Investigators, meanwhile, have been exploring potential causes of the blaze — with a lit cigarette among the possibilities.
An employee who worked the night of the disaster has told media outlets a resident’s cigarette was the trigger.
During that first public appearance Sunday, Bernier offered his condolences to the victim’s loved ones.
“We call them our residents, but we can go further than that: they are part of our family,” he said inside Eglise de La Decollation-de-Saint-Jean-Baptiste, a 159-year-old church in the heart of L’Isle-Verte.
“I have to tell you that it has been very hard for us deal with all of this.”
The memorial and Roman Catholic mass attracted politicians such as Premier Pauline Marois and Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard.
A formal ceremony, in which more dignitaries are expected to attend, has been scheduled for Feb. 1.
The emotional gathering Sunday, during which attendees dabbed their tearing eyes, was dedicated to the people.
Parish priest Gilles Frigon called it an opportunity for the village in Quebec’s Lower St-Lawrence region to grieve together as a community.
“It’s through suffering that we recognize true love,” said Frigon, whose voice cracked a few times under the weight of his emotions.
“Lord, we are all assembled feeling the same pain in this profound suffering that breaks our hearts. Today, we really need you.”
Other locals addressed the church, including a nurse who worked at the clinic inside the seniors’ home.
Lucie Berube said she chose to work at the residence so she could be closer to her grandmother, Laurea Dube.
“I had the privilege to be there for her, and her for me — I got so much pleasure out of seeing her,” Berube said of Dube, still missing since the blaze.
“I was so proud to hear her talk about me in the waiting room. ‘The nurse is my granddaughter,’ she would say.”
Authorities have indicated that they don’t expect to find any of the 22 missing residents alive.
Searches were hampered Sunday by bitter cold, poor visibility, blowing snow and biting winds up to 90 km-h, provincial police Lt. Guy Lapointe told a news conference.
He said a de-icing machine usually used for ships has been brought in to melt the thick layer of ice covering the rubble.
“We’re using it in a different fashion in a sense, to be more delicate in our approach, but it’s been yielding promising results,” Lapointe said.
The coroner’s office formally identified a third victim on Sunday — Louis-Philippe Roy, 89.
The premier said Sunday that she hoped those still awaiting word on their loved ones would soon have closure.
Marois cut short a trip to Europe to deliver her condolences Sunday in L’Isle-Verte, where she saw the devastation.
She called the blaze “unacceptable” and said everything is being done to provide support for survivors.
Marois also said over the last year a working committee has been studying whether sprinklers should be mandatory in buildings like the Residence du Havre.
Parts of the three-storey home, which opened in 1997, had sprinklers, while others didn’t.
“If they recommend to us to change the rules, to change the laws and implement (mandatory) sprinklers, we will do that,” Marois said.
“After that, we will see if there are some new rules to adopt.”
Marois applauded the efforts of the police, firefighters and other first responders.
She called Sunday’s church ceremony “very moving.”
“We know that part of the community is gone, so I would like to say to the families once again, that we are at your side,” Marois said.
A local man whose brother-in-law vanished in the fire said he would remember the touching ceremony for a long time.
As he left the church, Raymond Morin also said he enjoyed Bernier’s address.
“What he’s going through isn’t easy,” said Morin. “All those people close to him, they’re no longer there.”
In his speech, Bernier said he believes the community can bounce back.
“The Residence du Havre was not a little castle of cards — there was a lot inside,” he said.
“There was an extraordinary spirit. If everyone helps out, maybe we will be able to relive that passionate spirit.”