A sprinkler system had been recently installed at a Quebec seniors' residence where a deadly fire claimed one life Sunday morning, but it's unclear if it was functional.
Francine Charbonneau, the Quebec minister responsible for seniors, could not say whether the sprinklers went off when the blaze broke out at Oasis residence on St-Louis Street.
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A 94-year-old woman was badly burned when the roof collapsed as she was being escorted out of the building. She later died in hospital.
All 45 residents were taken to hospital. Two have serious injuries, including one who was also badly burned, and are under observation.
Quebec provincial police's arson unit is handling the investigation into the fire, which has been deemed suspicious.
Firefighters arrived at the building around 1:30 a.m. Sunday to sky-high flames. They had to stage an emergency rescue, evacuating the residents from the building within five minutes.
The building was a total loss. Christian Gagné, spokesperson for the local health and social services centre, said a team of people is working to find the residents new accommodations.
When asked what prevented Sunday's fire from becoming a tragedy on the same scale as a fatal blaze northeast of Quebec City three years ago, Charbonneau cited the speed with which police, paramedics and firefighters arrived at the scene, as well as the response of hospital staff.
In January 2014, 32 people died when a fire broke out at a seniors' residence in L'Isle-Verte, Que. Among the factors mentioned in a coroner's report into the deaths was the delay in getting firefighters to the scene.
Residents cried for help
Almost of all of the building's residents needed assistance exiting the building, said fire operations chief Érick Harnois.
"There were people everywhere, on the ground, who were trying to get out," said Harnois. "There were people on their balconies, crying for help."
Firefighters from neighbouring municipalities had to be called in to help fight the fire.
"It's a scenario we don't see often in our careers and we don't wish it on anyone," he said. "But we're happy it went smoothly."
Witness David Charbonneau was at the scene of the fire before firefighters arrived, along with four police officers and a few other people. He said he was driving by and stopped when he saw the huge flames, noting it only took five minutes for the whole building to become engulfed.
He told Radio-Canada he saw a man in distress on the second floor, who was leaning out the window to breathe because the smoke was preventing him from leaving his room.
A police officer had the "bright idea" of getting a trampoline from a lawn next door and the group hauled it over and put underneath the window in case the man needed to jump.
By then, the flames had gotten so fierce and high they were reaching the roof, licking its underside. They were so hot, he said, that a fire escape staircase was melting.
"It was really dangerous. The firefighters arrived like true saviours," he said.
Woman screaming from her balcony
Jessica Trudel, who lives next door, said she wanted to take some of the residents into her home — one man didn't have a shirt on — out of the cool, humid night, but a police officer urged her to get out.
"I started to realize how serious this was, that's when I realized the scope of [this fire]," Trudel said.
A woman was "screaming, she was shrieking from her balcony, to the point where she wanted to jump," she said. "It was hard to hear, it made me want to get a ladder and climb up and get her."
Trudel thinks the evacuation could have happened faster.
"For those people, all they have left is in that home and now it's gone ... and to know that this may have been intentional, it hurts even more," Trudel added.
Capt. Benoît Bilodeau, of Terrebonne police, said officers entered the building to save people without any protective gear.
"They were crawling on the ground and carried people out on their shoulders," Bilodeau told Radio-Canada.
"When police arrive at a scene [like this], we're not thinking; we're there to save lives, we're there to help people. So by instinct, often, we dive in without thinking twice," he added. "That's what my guys did last night, and we're very proud of them."