Emergency workers pulled the bodies of three women from under rubble on Wednesday, four hours after a warehouse collapsed and caught fire in a small town north of Montreal.
The grocery warehouse's snow-laden roof collapsed shortly after 12:30 ET in Morin Heights, a town of 2,700 located in the mountains in Quebec's Laurentians. Authorities are working to confirm if the weight of the snow or a structural problem, caused the roof to cave in.
The victims, who were 46, 54 and 62, all worked at the Gourmet du Village warehouse, said Quebec provincial police spokesman Marc Butz.
Some of the roughly 45 employees who had been inside said they heard cracking sounds and shifting snow before the roof fell.
"I was in the produce section when I heard a cracking, then there was a big boom and I looked behind me and the roof had caved in," employee Patrick Routhier told CBC News.
Employees ran outside, fearing for their lives.
Residents held out hope
Before the bodies were discovered, emergency workers, residents and Mayor Michel Plante held out hope that they would be found alive.
Crowds huddled for hours beyond the yellow police tape surrounding the building, waiting for news as emergency crews put out the fire and combed through the debris with a mechanical shovel.
"This is a small Laurentian town where everybody knows each other and almost everyone knows the three women trapped inside," the CBC's Justin Hayward reported from the scene, before the women were declared dead.
But at about 5 p.m. ET, police announced the women had been found. They were taken by ambulance to hospital in nearby Saint-Agathe, where they were pronounced dead.
"Unfortunately, they were dead when they arrived here at the hospital," said hospital spokesman Alain Paquette.
A niece of one of the trapped women said her aunt and the other two women were some of the longest-standing employees of the warehouse.
"They were on the same team together, that's why they were trapped together," said Tara Kirkpatrick.
Gourmet du Village is a specialty herb and spice business that distributes spice mixes internationally. Business records show it is owned by Mike and Linda Tott. It has operated out of Morin Heights for more than 25 years and is considered the town's largest employer.
Mayor wants school roof cleared
Some residents were angered by the collapse, insisting that locals should know to keep their roofs clear of snow after heavy snowfalls, the CBC's Hayward said.
The mayor is now ordering the local school to clear its roof, to prevent a collapse, the CBC's Nancy Wood reported Wednesday night.
The Quebec government, police and the coroner are investigating the cause of the collapse.
Christine Grant of the Régie du bâtiment, the provincial body that oversees building safety, told the CBC's French-language affiliate, RDI, that the collapse and fire was tragic.
"The amount of snow was exceptional this year, which could be a factor in this incident, but it is too soon … to determine a cause of the incident."
She urged people to clear their roofs, and said there are warning signs that a roof might collapse, including cracks in the wall and doors that don't close properly and get stuck in their frames.
Several buildings have collapsed in the province this winter.
No one was injured when a section of roof at a Cascades plant collapsed on Tuesday in Saint-Jérôme.
A pavilion at Laval University in Quebec City was evacuated last week after snow accumulated on the roof prompted fears of a collapse.