L’ISLE-VERTE, Quebec — A fire raged through a seniors’ home in eastern Quebec on Thursday, trapping residents dependent on wheelchairs and walkers. Three died, 30 were missing, and Canada’s prime minister said there is little doubt the death toll will be high.
Officials said firefighters saw and heard people in the building that they were unable to save.
Many of those unaccounted for were confined to wheelchairs and walkers and only five residents in the center were fully autonomous, said Ginette Caron, acting mayor of the small town of L’Isle-Verte, about 140 miles northeast of Quebec City. She said some had Alzheimer’s disease.
The massive fire in the three-story building broke out around 12:30 a.m. and raged through the night. Firefighters arrived within eight minutes of getting the alarm, and several fire departments in the region were called in to help. But firefighters were unable to carry out a complete evacuation because of the intensity of the fire. About 20 residents were transported to safety.
“It was a total fire,” said L’Iles-Verte fire chief Yvan Charron.
The fire broke out in -4 Fahrenheit temperatures, causing equipment to freeze, Charron said.
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.
The search for the missing was still hampered Thursday evening by the cold and thick ice and the fact that the building has collapsed, said Quebec Provincial police Lt. Guy Lapointe. Officials said they would work through the night.
“We can keep some hope for those unaccounted for, but there’s very little doubt that the loss of life is considerable,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said.
Outside the building, Jacques Berube, 70, was getting ready to hear the worst about his 99-year-old 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.”
Pierre Filion, who had a cousin and an aunt living in the residence, said the tragedy had shaken the tightly knit community of 1,500 people.
“Everybody knows everybody,” he said. “It’s a small community. It’s going to take a long time to start living normally.”
Parts of the Residence du Havre, which opened in 1997, had sprinklers, while others didn’t. Charron said sprinklers did go off, triggering the fire alarm.