A day after a massive fire tore through a seniors' home in the eastern Quebec town of L’Isle-Verte, the reality of the horror and devastation that met some of the elderly residents during the overnight blaze is beginning to set in for the small community.
In a town of fewer than 1,500 people, there’s nowhere to escape the tragedy.
At the 160-year-old Catholic church located just down the road from the Résidence du Havre, children trace their hands on construction paper, creating a giant heart to show the collective strength of the community. Adults struggle to hold back tears.
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“In L’Isle-Verte, because of this tragedy, we see we all have one heart. That heart is broken,” says Father Gilles Frigon, the priest at St-Jean Baptist de L’Isle Verte, his voice trembling as tears welled up in his eyes.
“Together we can get through it, we can heal, put the pieces back together, but it takes time.”
At a restaurant nearby, locals peer through the window at the tables now flooded with journalists from across the country typing on laptops and speaking into cameras.
“There sure are a lot of people here,” many remark after sticking their heads in for a closer look inside where police, politicians and civil security officials have been giving updates on the situation in the town.
Next door at the scene, firefighters and rescue workers try to stay warm while biting winds blow through the remains of what was once the Résidence de Havre. A backhoe turns over the still smouldering debris that are topped with a layer of ice.
Tears and disbelief
Yesterday, many people in town said they simply couldn’t believe that the building, and what many fear could be as many as 35 people in it who were unable to escape, were gone.
Today, the shock has faded and tears emerge when they start to talk about the people they fear are lost.
'In L’Isle-Verte, because of this tragedy, we see we all have one heart. That heart is broken.' - Father Gilles Frigon, St-Jean Baptist de L’Isle Verte
Philippe Lepicier, the co-owner of the town’s sole pharmacy, which was located in Résidence du Havre, was working to set up a temporary shop at the seniors’ centre located a few doors down.
Half a dozen people unpacked boxes and stocked shelves with the little necessities his shop provided to the community for the past eight years.
“Today, I’ve got a strong sense of duty. That’s what gives me the strength and the energy to keep it up and that’s what I have best to offer the community,” he said.
Before he could finish his thought, tears welled up in his eyes.
Lepicier said his pharmacist knew many of the residents very well and started preparing orders by heart yesterday to help get medication to those who needed it urgently.
“People who couldn’t walk or had minimum mobility, they were coming directly to the pharmacy, sometimes more than once day,” he said.
“We were talking about more than health. We became neighbours. We became friends. We knew them. We knew their families. It’s really a close relationship when we share such proximity.”
Family members missing
Robert Bérubé jumped into his car to drive five hours straight from Laval to L’Isle-Verte after he found out about the fire.
His 99-year-old mother, Adrienne Bérubé, lived in la Résidence du Havre. But when Bérubé arrived, there was no news about his mother.
“In my mind, she’s there, and she’s waiting for help,” he said. “I cannot accept that, it’s not possible.”
Bérubé says he and his eight siblings had been busy planning a birthday party for his mother, who turns 100 in May.
“She’s 99.9 years old,” Bérubé said.
Bérubé says his mother, who’s blind, should have been helped outside.
“You’re supposed to … help the handicapped. You’re supposed to move this person first,” he said.
Marielle Marquis, a volunteer at the church and retired school teacher, said she knew at least 25 people on a list of those who remain unaccounted for. Her aunt escaped the fire. Her cousin hasn’t been heard from.
“They are people who are very important to me,” she said.
“In Lac-Megantic, they lost youth and their hope for the future. We lost our library, our history.”
The church is planning a special mass on Sunday to support survivors and the rest of the community. The service is scheduled to take place at 2 p.m. ET.