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Updated: Thu, 23 Jan 2014 23:10:15 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

L'Isle-Verte seniors residence fire claims at least 5



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

A tragic fire at a seniors residence in L'Isle-Verte, Que., has killed at least five people, and around 30 more are still unaccounted for.

The death toll was confirmed late Thursday evening by Lt. Guy Lapointe of the Sûreté du Québec and Quebec coroner Geneviève Guilbault.

"This is a very difficult situation for everyone," Lapointe told CBC News. "It's a tough situation. One that you would never want to face as a police officer and fireman, and everybody is dedicated and working hard, and no one is complaining regardless of the difficult climatic situation."

Around 20 people were rescued and brought to nearby health centres and hospitals shortly after the fire started around 12:30 a.m. ET.

Police have not determined exactly how many people were inside the building at the time of the blaze. Officials said that they are "getting closer to an absolute number" of people unaccounted for, and are still not able to determine when that information will be available.

Lapointe said the extreme cold is complicating the search and rescue operation.

The water firefighters used to put out the massive fire has frozen over the site.

"Our first concern is the safety of the people working on the scene. Again, we have to do this very delicately for the deceased in there. We can't just go in and break the ice," he said.

Lapointe also noted the fire has not been completely extinguished, adding that early searches revealed the fire was still smouldering in some pockets beneath the ice.

As a result, search operations have been suspended until morning.

The provincial police have taken over from the region's local fire departments in the search for the 30 seniors still missing.

"People can be confirmed missing two, three times, and people don't think of calling us back and letting us know," said Lapointe.

The police set up two perimeters — a red zone around the building itself, and a yellow zone with wider boundaries.

La RésidenceduHavre was built in 1997 on Quai Street in the small community 30 to 40 kilometres east of Rivière-du-Loup. 

Roch Bernier and Irène Plante took ownership of the residence in 1999, when there were 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 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.

Many residents were in wheelchairs

Caron said most of the home's residents, many who have 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.

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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