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updated: 1/25/2014 10:10 AM

8 confirmed dead in Quebec fire, about 30 missing

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  • A police investigator signals to colleagues as they search through icy rubble to trying to locate more victims of a fire that destroyed a seniors' residence Friday, Jan. 24, 2014, in L'Isle-Verte, Quebec. Five people are confirmed dead and 30 people are still missing, while with cause of Thursday morning's blaze is unclear police said. Authorities are using steam to melt the ice and to preserve any bodies that are buried.

      A police investigator signals to colleagues as they search through icy rubble to trying to locate more victims of a fire that destroyed a seniors' residence Friday, Jan. 24, 2014, in L'Isle-Verte, Quebec. Five people are confirmed dead and 30 people are still missing, while with cause of Thursday morning's blaze is unclear police said. Authorities are using steam to melt the ice and to preserve any bodies that are buried.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

L'ISLE-VERTE, Quebec -- The painstaking search through the iced-over remains of a burned-out Quebec retirement home resumed Saturday morning, with friends and relatives of some 30 missing people awaiting news. Eight people had been confirmed dead.

As crews used steam Friday 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.

The cause of the massive blaze that swept through the three-story building early Thursday was under investigation, and police asked the public for any videos or photos that might yield clues.

Search teams of police, firefighters and coroners slowly and methodically picked their way through, working in shifts in the extreme cold about 140 miles (225 kilometers) northeast of Quebec City. The afternoon temperature was around 3 degrees F (minus 16 Celsius.)

Quebec Provincial Police Lt. Guy Lapointe said authorities decided to give the search crew a break from the brutal cold and the difficult work overnight.

The work is specialized, and only a limited number of people can be assigned to the task, he said.

"The decision was taken that it was better for the safety, for the well-being of our crew, to let them rest," Lapointe said.

Spray from firefighters' hoses left the home resembling a macabre snow palace, the ruins encased in thick white ice dripping with icicles.

The tragedy cast such a pall over the village of 1,500 that psychologists were sent door to door.

"It's absolute desolation," 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.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, in Switzerland this week for a world economic summit, said she will cut her trip short by 24 hours to return home and visit L'Isle-Verte on Sunday, when a religious service is planned in the village.

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.

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