Thirty-two presumed dead in Quebec seniors' home fire

By Matthieu Belanger, Reuters

Posted at Jan 26 2014 08:57 AM | Updated as of Jan 26 2014 04:57 PM

L'ISLE-VERTE, Quebec - Thirty-two people were presumed to have died in a fire that swept through a wooden retirement residence in the eastern Canadian province of Quebec on Thursday, police said on Saturday.

Ten bodies have been recovered and 22 people are still missing. The disaster looks set to be the second worst to hit a Canadian seniors' home after a 1969 blaze in Quebec that killed 54 people.

Police, pressed about reports a cigarette had started the fire, said they still had no idea what caused Thursday's blaze in the Residence du Havre in L'Isle-Verte, a town of 1,500 people on the St Lawrence River northeast of Quebec City.

Special teams are using steam and hot air to melt layers of ice up to two feet (60 cm) thick that encases many of the bodies. The ice formed after firemen sprayed vast amounts of water on the blaze in freezing temperatures.

Police said earlier in the day that "we can assume the worst" about those still missing more than two days after the fire. Most of the residents were 85 or over and some needed wheelchairs or walkers to move around.

In the aftermath of the disaster, attention has focused on the fact that only part of the residence was equipped with sprinklers, and that provincial law did not require a sprinkler system there.

Quebec police have declined to comment on media reports that the fire may have been caused by a cigarette in a resident's room. One report said a night guard at the home saw thick smoke coming from a second-floor room.

"Investigators are looking at all the hypotheses. There is not one particular hypothesis that is the best one. We have heard rumors ... but they are only rumors," police spokesman Michel Brunet told reporters later in the day, saying it could take months to determine the cause of the disaster.

The residence's website says the facility is smoke-free.

The temperature, which had hovered around minus 22 Celsius (minus 8 Fahrenheit) on Thursday, rose to minus 7 C on Saturday. It was due to drop to minus 17 C on Sunday, according to the federal environment ministry's website.

In a bid to speed up the process of recovery, the special teams on Saturday started using machinery designed to de-ice ships. The equipment produces extra-hot air.

Brunet said the teams would work under canvas tents to concentrate the heat on the ice rather than letting it dissipate into the atmosphere.

"We will work slowly. We have evidence to recover and that will take time," he said, repeating a call for eyewitnesses to produce any video footage or pictures they may have taken during the early stages of the fire.

Three of the victims have been identified, among them a woman of 95 and another of 82.

A memorial service will be held in the town on Sunday at 2 pm (1900 GMT). Local priest Gilles Frigon said the church was there for community members in good times and bad.

"We celebrate with them but when they suffer, we suffer," he told reporters tearfully.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois has cut short a visit to Europe and plans to be present at the service, officials said.

It was the second major disaster to hit a small community in the predominantly French-speaking province of 8 million in the past year. In July 2013, a runaway train carrying light crude from North Dakota's Bakken region exploded in the heart of the town of Lac Megantic, Quebec, killing 47.

Earlier in the day police urged L'Isle-Verte residents not to talk to the media, in order to help maintain the integrity of the police investigation.

The Quebec branch of the Red Cross, which on Friday appealed for C$200,000 ($180,200) to help those affected by the disaster, said it had already raised the entire sum.

Much of the money will be spent on items such as wheelchairs, clothing, small items of furniture, dentures, hearing aids and eye glasses, Red Cross spokesman Pascal Mathieu told a news conference on Saturday.

Some of the specialized hearing aids which are needed can cost up to C$5,000 per person, he said.

($1=$1.11 Canadian) (Writing by Randall Palmer and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson, Gunna Dickson, David Gregorio and James Dalgleish)