INVESTIGATORS have been picking through the icy rubble of a charred care home in Canada to try to identify more victims of a fire that killed at least five people, with about 30 more unaccounted for.
The three-storey home for the elderly resembled a macabre frozen palace yesterday, with sheets of ice and thick icicles covering the destroyed structure.
Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper said there was little doubt the death toll would climb in the eastern Quebec town of L’Isle-Verte, where below-zero temperatures have hampered the recovery effort.
Witnesses told horrific tales of seeing people die in the blaze. Most of the residents probably never had a chance to escape – many of them were over 85, had little or no mobility and were confined to wheelchairs or walking aids.
Pascal Fillion 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.
Agnes Fraser’s 82-year-old brother, Claude, was among the missing, but she said she knew she would never see him again because he lived in the section of the building destroyed by the flames. “It’s done,” she said.
Another man told broadcaster RDI how his grandmother had called for help from a second-floor balcony and said efforts to reach her by ladder had failed. “She died on the balcony,” he said, his voice breaking.
The fire erupted at 12:30am local time on Thursday and quickly spread. Firefighters arrived within eight minutes of getting the alarm and several fire departments in the region were called in to help, but they were unable to carry out a complete evacuation because of the fire’s intensity. About 20 residents were transported to safety.
When the blaze broke out, the temperature was about –20C, causing fire crews’ equipment to freeze.
The cause of the blaze remained unclear yesterday.
Quebec provincial police lieutenant Guy Lapointe said three search teams of police, firefighters and coroners were going through the wreckage in shifts and using steam to melt the ice.
He asked the public for any video or photos of the fire in an effort to help determine its cause.
L’Isle-Verte fire chief Yvan Charron said his colleagues had been able to get to the part of the building that was still standing, but the rest remained inaccessible.
Veronique Hivon, Quebec’s social services minister, said many of the volunteer firefighters from the small town of about 1,500 people had relatives in the home. She said psychologists would be knocking on doors throughout the community to offer help. “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.”
Ms Hivon stressed the home had met the necessary legal standards 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. It was extended in about 2002 and the sprinklers in the new part of the building triggered the alarm.
The fire comes six months after 47 people were killed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, when a train with 72 oil tankers derailed and exploded.
In 1969, a nursing home fire in Notre-Dame-du-Lac, Quebec, killed 54.