Ten people have died in a deadly fire at a seniors' home in eastern Quebec and 22 people are still considered missing, Quebec officials confirmed at a press conference late Saturday afternoon.
''I think we can assume the worst.' - Quebec provincial police Lt. Guy Lapointe on those still considered missing
Thursday's blaze destroyed the residence in L'Isle-Verte, about 240 kilometres northeast of Quebec City.
A third victim has also been identified, the provincial coroner's office said at the press conference. The identity will be made public Sunday morning.
Earlier on Saturday, the office released the names of two victims: Juliette Saindon, 95, and Marie-Lauréat Dubé, 82.
The deaths are the first to be officially confirmed by the coroner's office in connection with Thursday's fire.
The cause of the deadly blaze has not been officially determined, but police sources told Radio-Canada on Friday that the fire originated in one of the residents' rooms.
- L'Isle-Verte seniors' home fire started in resident's room: source
- INTERACTIVE: Fatal fires involving seniors' homes in Canada
- L'Isle-Verte seniors' home fire raises ire over sprinkler regulation
Quebec provincial police Lt. Guy Lapointe wasn't holding out much hope for those whose remains have not yet been found.
"I think we can assume the worst," he said at an earlier press conference. "But we're not going to confirm any deaths until we've actually recovered the remains."
De-ice machine brought in
After a brief overnight respite during the worst of the frigid weather, crews in L’Isle-Verte resumed their work Saturday at the charred and frozen scene.
Lt. Michel Brunet, spokesman for the Sûreté du Québec, was at the Lac-Mégantic after the rail disaster last July as crews battled extreme heat and toxic fumes.
In L'Isle-Verte, police and firefighters are now fighting through extreme cold, wind and thick ice.
"We have to work as hard as we did in Lac-Mégantic, but in a smaller place. That's the difference," he said.
Search crews are now using a special machine brought in from Saguenay that produces a vapour to melt the thick ice coating the scene. The machine is usually used to remove ice from boats.
"It could help us to go a little bit faster, but we have to be very careful to protect the bodies. That's why we are working slowly," he said.
A town in mourning
In the small community of fewer than 1,500, most don't need a list to recognize those who may have not made it out of the fire.
Few in town are without a personal connection to someone who lived in the building.
Alphonse Gagnon and his wife Yvette Michaud live in a home facing the Résidence du Havre and know many of the residents.
A visibly shaken Gagnon said he noticed a glow coming through the partially closed blinds early Thursday morning and screamed for his wife to get up.
“It was hard to look at. Everything was on fire ... I can’t even talk about it,” he said, trying to hold back tears.
Michaud sobbed as she described watching the residence go up in flames. She said she was terrified the raging fire was going to spread to their home.
“I said to my husband, ‘We’re done for. We’re done for. We’re going to burn. We’re going to die. We’re going to die, too.'"
Michaud said she asked God to protect them. She thought about her family and how she wasn't ready to leave them.
Like many who saw the horrific scene first-hand, she’s haunted by the flames.
“It’s affected me very deeply,” she said. “I’m overwhelmed by sadness. I really need help.”
Special mass planned
More than a dozen psychologists and social workers are on site in L’Isle-Verte to assist residents who are struggling in the aftermath of the fire.
'They cry in your arms. We’re trying very, very hard to take away their sadness. There’s nothing to say. They’re in mourning.' - Father Gilles Frigon
Some went door-to-door to make sure that those closest to the scene got the help they needed.
“In the first stages, people are really in the state of shock and many of them can have a tendency to close themselves, shut themselves off and isolate themselves,” Véronique Hivon, Quebec's junior health and social services minister, said during a news conference at the scene Friday.
“Often the elderly feel they will bother you if they ask for something, but they don’t bother anyone. We have really to repeat the message that we are there for them, to give them all the help necessary.”
The town’s Catholic church, a huge Gothic structure a few hundred metres from the seniors residence, is planning a special mass Sunday to help survivors and residents cope with the aftermath and trauma that has blanketed the community.
Father Gilles Frigon, the priest at St-Jean Baptiste de L’Isle-Verte church, said there’s little that can be said to those suffering this kind of anguish, but he hoped the solidarity of the community would provide some comfort.
Frigon said he’s met with several people whose mothers or fathers escaped the building. He’s also consoled those whose loved ones are among the missing.
“It’s very difficult, very distressing,” he said. “They tell you about their pain, their sorrow. They cry in your arms. We’re trying very, very hard to take away their sadness. There’s nothing to say. They’re in mourning.”
The massive, ornate church that was once the gathering place in the community has struggled to make ends meet in recent years. Only a few dozen people make it to mass now, and the church will soon have to find other means of filling the building and paying the bills.
Red Cross donations pour in
For the time being, the pews that have supported generations in L’Isle-Verte will serve again as a place to mourn their collective loss.
However, the intent behind Sunday’s service is to first help the living, church volunteers said.
Honouring the dead will come later.
"It's an intimate gathering to help rebuild broken hearts," Frigon said of Sunday’s prayer service. "It's a first step toward healing, to living our pain and expressing our suffering.
"In their happiness, we rejoice with them, and in their suffering, we suffer with them. That's what it means to be a pastor," he said.
Frigon asked families to bring photos, mementos and memories of their loved ones to share at Sunday’s event.
On Saturday, the Quebec division of the Canadian Red Cross said donations to its fund for those affected by the fire had reached $200,000.
The Red Cross said donations will help furnish urgent needs for those residents of Résidence du Havre left homeless by the fire, including clothing, hearing and dental prostheses and mobility-assistance equipment.
Donations will also assist with new housing, furniture, household items, pharmaceuticals, the facilitation of family reunions and support for those families dealing with the loss of a loved one.