Residents of the tiny Quebec village of L’Isle-Verte awoke to what will be another excruciating day of sifting through charred, frozen debris at the Résidence du Havre seniors home for any sign of the 30 people still missing.
Late yesterday evening, Quebec provincial police confirmed that five people had died in a massive fire that tore through the 52-unit assisted-living residence, located 30 to 40 kilometres east of Rivière-du-Loup, early Thursday morning.
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Another 20 people made it out alive and are now staying with family members.
Police are expected to provide another update at the scene at 9 a.m.. ET.
The ice-covered remains of the structure, still smouldering late Thursday evening, has been cordoned off by police, who have taken over the search for those who remain unaccounted for.
Police say they still cannot locate 30 residents of the building, but are hopeful that some were away at the time of the fire.
Dozens of anguished stories emerged yesterday as shocked survivors and shaken locals told heartbreaking accounts of watching the fire consume the seniors' home.
Some described “blood-curdling” screams coming from people trapped inside the building. Others recounted vain attempts to reach family members stranded on the building’s upper floors, only to watch helplessly as they perished in the smoke and flames.
Jean-Eudes Fraser said he had been sleeping for about a half an hour when his phone rang early Thursday morning. It was his mother and he instantly knew something was wrong.
She told him there was a fire in the building and she wasn’t able to get out. She was trapped on her balcony and was begging him to bring some warm clothes and a ladder to rescue her.
Fraser grabbed a hat, mittens and a coat, threw his ladder in his car and was there in five minutes, before emergency crews had arrived.
His ladder only reached the second floor, but he hoisted himself up by the railing to his mother’s third-floor balcony. He quickly dressed her in the warm clothes, but then realized there was no one there to help them and the flames were rapidly enveloping the building.
“Five minutes later, the fire was everywhere,” he said. “I cried [to a man below], ‘Quick, get a ladder! I’m on the balcony with my mother! We need a ladder!’ .… I screamed, ‘Hurry up! Hurry up!’ But the longer it took, the worse the smoke got.”
'“I had to decide if I was going to die with her or go back down myself.' - Jean-Eudes Fraser, victim's son
As the fire spread, Fraser lay on the floor with his mother gasping for breath as they were overtaken by smoke.
He knew if he did nothing, they’d both die.
“I had to decide if I was going to die with her or go back down myself,” he said, struggling to hold back tears. “I had to make a decision. It was not easy.”
Fraser climbed down the railing and frantically searched for a ladder long enough to reach the third floor.
By the time he found one, the flames had spread. His mother was still lying on the patio. When he reached her, he knew she was dead.
He was treated in hospital for smoke inhalation.
Cause under investigation
The cause of the blaze has not been determined, but the speed at which it spread through the residence has raised questions about the building's safety.
Government documents show that of the 52 people living in Résidence du Havre, 37 were at least 85 years of age.
Most had limited mobility and used walkers or wheelchairs.
Several local residents told the media Thursday there were no sprinklers in the portion of the building that was destroyed. The part of the building still standing, an annex that opened in 2002, was equipped with sprinklers.
Police said yesterday it was too early to say if the sprinkler system was working properly, but the Health Ministry’s file on the residence lists it as having a partial sprinkler system, as well as a fire alarm system and smoke detectors.