Emergency workers search through the frozen rubble of a seniors residence Friday, January 24, 2014 in L'Isle-Verte, Que., following a fatal fire. Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press
After a brief overnight respite during the worst of the frigid weather, crews in L’Isle-Verte have resumed their work this morning at the charred and frozen scene of the deadly fire that killed at least eight residents of a seniors residence and left 32 missing.
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.”
At a press conference Saturday morning, Lapointe confirmed that eight people are dead and 32 people are considered missing.
A spokeswoman for the provincial coroner`s office also confirmed that two people killed in the fire have been formally identified, but the identities will only be made public later in the day.
The cause of the deadly blaze has not been official determined, but police sources told Radio-Canada Friday that the fire originated in one of the resident`s rooms.
Lapointe, however, said this is one theory among many that the SQ is pursuing.
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.
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