L’ISLE-VERTE, Quebec — Crews struggled with frigid temperatures and ice as thick as two feet (60 centimeters) as they searched Saturday for more bodies in the remains of a burned-out Quebec retirement home as friends and relatives of the victims awaited news. Just eight bodies of the 32 presumed dead have been recovered.
A massive blaze swept through the three-story building in L’Isle-Verte, about 140 miles (225 kilometers) northeast of Quebec City early Thursday. Quebec Provincial Police Lt. Guy Lapointe at a news conference lowered the number of missing from about 30 to 24 based on more detailed information. The official confirmed death toll remained at eight.
“The 24 people that are still missing, I think we can assume the worst. We’re not going to confirm any deaths until we’ve actually recovered the remains,” Lapointe said.
The coroner’s office identified two of the victims as Juliette Saindon, 95, and Marie-Laureat Dube, 82.
The cause of the blaze that burned down the Residence du Havre was under investigation, and police asked the public for any videos or photos that might yield clues. Lapointe declined to confirm media reports that the fire began in the room of a resident who was smoking a cigarette, but he said it “is one hypothesis among many.”
“When you conduct an investigation of this magnitude, you have to determine all the facts and not simply just one or two in order to achieve a conclusion,” he said.
Frigid temperatures continued to hamper the search, with Lapointe saying the ice in certain places was as thick as 60 centimeters (two feet).
Search teams brought in equipment normally used to de-ice ships that pushes out very hot air.
“You can imagine how difficult it is to go through the ice, melt it, and do it in a way that we preserve the integrity of potential victims,” he said. “So it’s very difficult work again today. It’s very cold.”
On Friday, teams of police, firefighters and coroners slowly and methodically picked their way through the ruins, working in shifts in the extreme cold with temperatures hovering around minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 degrees Celsius).
As crews used steam to melt thick sheets of ice coating the rubble, Marc-Henri Saindon waited for his mother’s body to be recovered. Marie-Jeanne Gagnon, five months shy of her 100th birthday, had moved to the home on New Year’s Eve, her son said.
“She really liked it there. She was well treated and she had friends there,” Saindon said.
Spray from firefighters’ hoses left the home resembling a macabre snow palace, the ruins encased in thick white ice dripping with icicles. Workers took a break over night because of the freezing cold.
The tragedy cast such a pall over the village of 1,500 that psychologists were sent door to door.
“This is a horrible tragedy,” Mayor Ursule Theriault said.
Witnesses told horrific tales of people trapped and killed by the flames. Many of the 50 or so residents were over 85 and used wheelchairs or walkers. Some had Alzheimer’s.
Pascal Fillion, who lives nearby, said he saw someone use a ladder to try to rescue a man cornered on his third-floor balcony. The man was crying out for help before he fell to the ground, engulfed in flames, Fillion said.
“I lost my friends,” said Nicole Belanger, who worked at the home part-time for the past four years. “The residents loved us and we loved them.”
Quebec Minister of Social Services Veronique Hivon said many of the village’s volunteer firefighters had relatives at the retirement home.
“People are in a state of shock,” she said. “We want them to know the services are there by going door to door. It’s an important building that’s a part of their community that just disappeared.”
Hivon said the home was up to code and had a proper evacuation plan. A Quebec Health Department document indicates the home which has operated since 1997, had only a partial sprinkler system. The home expanded around 2002, and the sprinklers in the new part of the building triggered the alarm.
The owners of the residence made a public statement Friday for the first time since the fire, offering their condolences to victims’ families.
Roch Bernier and Irene Plante thanked firefighters, volunteers and the residence’s employees and said they are co-operating fully with authorities.
Father Gilles Frigon, the town’s Catholic priest, said he would hold a private Mass so residents could gather and share their grief. He has invited family members to bring photos of their loved ones.
“It will be family-oriented and intimate, so that in this tragic event we’re going through, we can find ourselves and rebuild our hearts,” Frigon said.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois has said she will visit L’Isle Verte on Sunday, but it was unclear whether she will attend the Mass.
A more official memorial ceremony featuring dignitaries has been scheduled for Feb. 1.
The fire came six months after 47 people were killed in the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, when a train carrying oil derailed and exploded.
In 1969, a nursing home fire in the community of Notre-Dame-du-Lac, Quebec, claimed 54 lives.
Associated Press Writer Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.