Canadian firefighters combed through ice and charred wreckage Friday in a grim search for the remains of residents of a burnt out Quebec seniors home, amid fears that more than 30 died.
Police updated the confirmed death toll to eight, after a day battling harsh winter conditions while crews cut through a sheet of ice left behind by fire hoses and investigated the cause of the blaze.
Quebec provincial police spokesman Guy Lapointe told reporters the search would be suspended at nightfall and resume the next day to allow physically and emotionally exhausted rescuers to rest.
More equipment is also being brought in to help in the search.
The fire at the 52-unit residence in the small town of L’Isle-Verte, 450 kilometers (280 miles) northeast of Montreal, broke out just after midnight Thursday.
Within about an hour, the wood-frame, three-storey building was completely engulfed in flames, fanned by frigid winds of up to 70 kilometers per hour.
The eastern section of North America is enduring a brutal cold snap after being blanketed by snow. This has hampered both rescue and recovery efforts.
Only a fireproof elevator shaft was left standing by morning, with a mound of rubble all around.
An adjacent pharmacy and a community center were also destroyed.
“It’s a bleak site,” said mayor Ursule Theriault.
Throughout the day teams of policemen, firefighters, officials from the coroner’s office and others combed through the debris.
They brought in an excavator and a steam apparatus to melt a sheet of ice up to a foot (30 centimeters) thick that blankets the site.
Huge amounts of water had been used to douse the blaze — enough that townsfolk have been asked to conserve supplies — and it froze as temperatures plunged to -30 degrees Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit).
“We have to melt the ice and then we can get the bodies out. It’s very delicate,” Quebec coroner spokeswoman Genevieve Guilbault told public broadcaster CBC.
“It takes a little longer to get them out,” she said, adding that identification of corpses recovered on Thursday had begun, using dental records and DNA.
Meanwhile condolences poured in from around the world, including from Queen Elizabeth II, Canada’s head of state.
Authorities managed to evacuate 23 people from one third of the building during the fire.
They are now trying to determine the fate of others who may have been trapped inside. They are also “searching for the cause of the blaze, where it originated, and how the fire spread,” said Lapointe.
But the task is arduous, with extreme cold freezing equipment and forcing workers to rotate out to warm up at least every hour.
Lapointe declined to comment on the possible causes of the fire at this early stage of the investigation.
Officials said the building met safety codes, but that has sparked a debate about strengthening regulations.
Initial indications suggest that the oldest part of the building, constructed in 1997, was not equipped with an automatic fire sprinkler system.
That section was reserved for independent-living seniors. B
But Quebec Public Safety Minister Stephane Bergeron explained that some may have been self-sufficient when they moved in and later didn’t wish to move when they started needing assistance.
Nearly two-thirds of the residents are more than 85 years old and many are in wheelchairs, use walkers, suffer from serious diseases including Alzheimers and are reliant on caregivers.
“If there was negligence, if there was a failure, or standards were not met, we’ll take action,” Quebec government minister Agnes Maltais said.
According to local reports, around one in two seniors’ residences in Quebec are not equipped with automatic fire sprinkler systems.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]