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Updated: Sat, 25 Jan 2014 16:29:17 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

L'Isle-Verte fire death toll at 8, with 24 missing

Emergency workers continue the search for victims Saturday, January 25, 2014 in L'Isle-Verte, Que. at the scene of a fatal fire at a seniors residnce Thursday, Jan, 22, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz The Canadian Press

Emergency workers continue the search for victims Saturday, January 25, 2014 in L'Isle-Verte, Que. at the scene of a fatal fire at a seniors residnce Thursday, Jan, 22, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz The Canadian Press

After a brief overnight respite during the worst of the frigid weather, crews in L’Isle-Verte resumed their work Saturday at the charred and frozen scene of a deadly fire that killed at least eight people at a seniors' home.

Emergency crews stood down last night for the first time since the blaze broke out Thursday morning to give workers  — who have been braving temperatures below –20 C on top of a slick coating of ice and steam rising from the rubble — a chance to rest before resuming the search for those still missing this morning.

“The conditions are very, very difficult,” Quebec provincial police Lt. Guy Lapointe said. “Our people are exhausted.”

On Saturday afternoon, the provincial coroner's office released the identities of two victims: Juliette Saindon, 95, and Marie-Lauréat Dubé, 82.

The deaths are the first to be officially confirmed by the coroner's office in connection with Thursday's fire.

At a press conference Saturday morning, the SQ's Lapointe confirmed that eight people died in the fire and 24 people are considered missing.

"I think we can all agree here today that the 24 people who are still missing, I think we can assume the worst," he said. "But we're not going to confirm any deaths until we've actually recovered the remains."

The cause of the deadly blaze has not been officially determined, but police sources told Radio-Canada on Friday that the fire originated in one of the residents' rooms.

Lapointe, however, said this is one theory among many that the SQ is pursuing.

Equipment normally used to de-ice ships is also now in place to assist in the task of removing the thick layer of ice that now coats the ruins of Résidence du Havre seniors' home. 

Lapointe said the ice is more than 60 centimetres thick in places.

 "So 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.

A town in mourning

In the small community of fewer than 1,500, most don't need a list to recognize those who may have not made it out of the fire.

Few in town are without a personal connection to someone who lived in the building.

Alphonse Gagnon and his wife Yvette Michaud live in a home facing the Résidence du Havre and know many of the residents.

A visibly shaken Gagnon said he noticed a glow coming through the partially closed blinds early Thursday morning and screamed for his wife to get up.

“It was hard to look at. Everything was on fire ... I can’t even talk about it,” he said, trying to hold back tears.

Michaud sobbed as she described watching the residence go up in flames. She said she was terrified the raging fire was going to spread to their home.

“I said to my husband, ‘We’re done for. We’re done for. We’re going to burn. We’re going to die. We’re going to die, too.'"

Michaud said she asked God to protect them. She thought about her family and how she wasn't ready to leave them. 

Like many who saw the horrific scene first-hand, she’s haunted by the flames.

“It’s affected me very deeply,” she said. “I’m overwhelmed by sadness. I really need help.”

Shock gives way to mourning

More than a dozen psychologists and social workers are on site in L’Isle-Verte to assist residents who are struggling in the aftermath of the fire. 

Some went door-to-door to make sure that those closest to the scene got the help they needed.

“In the first stages, people are really in the state of shock and many of them can have a tendency to  close themselves, shut themselves off and isolate themselves,” Véronique Hivon, Quebec's junior health and social services minister, said during a news conference at the scene Friday.

“Often the elderly feel they will bother you if they ask for something, but they don’t bother anyone. We have really to repeat the message that we are there for them, to give them all the help necessary.”

The town’s Catholic church, a huge Gothic structure a few hundred metres from the seniors residence, is planning a special mass Sunday to help survivors and residents cope with the aftermath and trauma that has blanketed the community.

Father Gilles Frigon, the priest at St-Jean Baptiste de L’Isle-Verte church, said there’s little that can be said to those suffering this kind of anguish, but he hoped the solidarity of the community would provide some comfort.

Frigon said he’s met with several people whose mothers or fathers escaped the building. He’s also consoled those whose loved ones are among the missing.

“It’s very difficult, very distressing,” he said. “They tell you about their pain, their sorrow. They cry in your arms. We’re trying very, very hard to take away their sadness. There’s nothing to say. They’re in mourning.”

The massive, ornate church that was once the gathering place in the community has struggled to make ends meet in recent years. Only a few dozen people make it to mass now, and the church will soon have to find other means of filling the building and paying the bills. 

For the time being, the pews that have supported generations in L’Isle-Verte will serve again as a place to mourn their collective loss.

However, the intent behind Sunday’s service is to first help the living, church volunteers said.

Honouring the dead will come later.

"It's an intimate gathering to help rebuild broken hearts," Frigon said of Sunday’s prayer service. "It's a first step toward healing, to living our pain and expressing our suffering.

"In their happiness, we rejoice with them, and in their suffering, we suffer with them. That's what it means to be a pastor," he said.

Frigon asked families to bring photos, mementos and memories of their loved ones to share at Sunday’s event.

Red Cross donations pour in

On Saturday, the Quebec division of the Canadian Red Cross said donations to its fund for those affected by the fire had reached $200,000.

The Red Cross said donations will help furnish urgent needs for those residents of Résidence du Havre left homeless by the fire, including clothing, hearing and dental prostheses and mobility-assistance equipment.

Donations will also assist with new housing, furniture, household items, pharmaceuticals, the facilitation of family reunions and support for those families dealing with the loss of a loved one.

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