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Updated: Thu, 23 Jan 2014 17:15:23 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

L'Isle-Verte seniors home fire leaves 3 dead, 30 missing

Firefighters battle flames at a L'Isle-Verte seniors home Thursday. Three residents are confirmed dead and 30 are missing. Infodimanche

Firefighters battle flames at a L'Isle-Verte seniors home Thursday. Three residents are confirmed dead and 30 are missing. Infodimanche

Police are investigating after an overnight fire at a three-storey seniors residence in L'Isle-Verte, Que., left three people dead and 30 unaccounted for. 

Firefighters said they received a call shortly after 12:30 a.m. ET Thursday from La Résidence du Havre on Quai Street in the small community east of Rivière-du-Loup. 

Roch Bernier and Irène Plante took ownership of the residence in 1999. At the time it had 32 units.

A new annex opened in 2002 allowed the residence to expand to 52 units — 18 for seniors living independently and 34 for people who required more assistance.

Government documents show that of the 52 people living in its units, 37 of them were at least 85 years of age.

According to the Résidence du Havre website, the owners made further renovations over the years, including improving the outdoor spaces by planting trees and flowers, and putting in more comfortable outdoor seating.

Sprinklers in question

Étienne Desjardins, who works for a local sprinkler system company, said he worked on the construction of the three-storey seniors home.

He said the part of the building that was destroyed by the fire — the part that was built in 1997 — had no sprinkler system, although the new annex did.

Police said it was too early to confirm whether the sprinkler system was working properly, but the Health Ministry’s file on the residence lists it as having a partial sprinkler system, as well as a fire alarm system and smoke detectors.

Quebec Minister of Labour and Social Solidarity Agnès Maltais spoke to the media at 3:30 p.m. ET. She said that the last time the rules were changed for seniors residences in the province was on March 19, 2013.

However, sprinklers were not part of the changes made at the time.

“That’s the question which is now on the table," Maltais said.

She said that the government would look at incorporating sprinklers into the new rules as soon as possible.

“We believe [seniors] are well-protected but we always have to tighten the rules each time we see there’s a failure somewhere," Maltais said.

 “We’re waiting for the result of the inquiry … to understand where the failure is,” she continued. 

Inquiry launched into fire

Radio-Canada is reporting that 16 seniors from the residence were taken to a local elementary school in the early morning hours.

Quebec provincial police said they will investigate the cause of the fire to determine whether it was arson.

About 1,500 people live in the rural town of L'Isle-Verte. Several homes near the residence were also evacuated.

Acting Mayor Ginette Caron, whose husband is a volunteer firefighter, said she was on the scene first thing Thursday morning.

"All our thoughts are with the families, the people affected by this ordeal," Caron said.

PM sends 'thoughts and prayers'

Local and federal politicians sent their support to the community Thursday morning.

From his twitter account, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is on a tour of the Middle East, said his "thoughts and prayers go out" to those affected by the "horrific fire."

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, who is at an economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, said she is "profoundly saddened" by the news.

The mayor of Lac-Mégantic shared her sympathy with the town, a close-knit community much like her own.

Colette Roy-Laroche said people in her town, where a train derailed and killed 47 people last summer, remember what it's like to have so many missing and not knowing who is alive or dead. She said they are reliving these feelings alongside people in L'Isle Verte, and her heart goes out to them.

Many residents were in wheelchairs

Caron said most of the 50 to 60 residents, many with Alzheimer's disease, used wheelchairs or walkers.

She said many residents had come to live at the residence because of the special end-of-life care offered in the region.

During the fire, several residents were injured and taken to local hospitals in Rivière-du-Loup and Quebec City. Those who were not injured were taken to a nearby school, and have now been sent to stay with family members and friends.

Sgt. Audrey-Anne Bilodeau said emergency crews are still in rescue mode, as they search for the missing residents.

“We hope for the best,” she said. “We hope that the number is going to go down.”

Bilodeau said it's important to remember that the missing people are not necessarily dead.

"It’s possible some are with their families," she said.

'It wasn't a normal house fire'

Witness Pascal Fillion, who lives near the retirement home, said his roommate woke him up at about 1 a.m. and they went outside to see what was happening.

"When I woke up it had already started ... it wasn't a normal house fire, it was like a sheet of paper ... it was so intense," Fillion said. 

Fillion said he heard screams coming from inside, but the fire was so intense there was little firefighters could do.

"There was one person we saw, who they wanted to save, but he was on the top floor, and with the fire and the wind they weren't able to come any closer."

Marielle Marquis, president of another local seniors home, said she went to the scene to see if she could help.

She said she spoke with one woman whose parents had recently moved into La Résidence du Havre.

"She said, 'I didn't move my parents into this place for them to burn.' But I told her, 'Don't feel guilty, this was an accident, things happen.'"

Provincial police announced a ban on any flights over the fire zone.

The fire is now out, but images show a demolished building, with little more than a frame left behind in some places. 

The extreme cold weather is complicating the work of emergency crews, officials said, as the temperature was about –19 C.

Family members looking for more information are asked to phone 418-868-1000 or toll free at 1-800-659-4264.

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