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Quebec mourns lives lost in fatal senior home fire

 

Mathieu Belanger / Reuters

A firefighter looks on at the seniors residence Residence du Havre after a fire in L'Isle Verte, Quebec, on Thursday.

Grief-stricken mourners holding photos of their loved ones gathered at a Quebec church for Sunday Mass to honor those lost in one of the deadliest retirement home fires in Canada.

Although brutal weather temporarily halted the search effort earlier Sunday for 22 people presumed dead, the small community of L’Isle-Verte came together later in the day for what one priest called "a first step toward healing."

Among the attendees was Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, who cut short a visit to Europe after learning of Thursday’s blaze at Residence du Havre, home to seniors mostly 75 and older.

Marois visited the icy rubble and then spoke with reporters, calling the tragedy “unacceptable,” The Globe and Mail newspaper reported. Ten bodies had been found as of Sunday afternoon.

"First of all, we will wait for the inquiry because now, we don’t have the results of this evaluation and examination," Marois said. "After that, we will see if there is some new rules to adopt."

A licensing document filed with the Health Ministry revealed that the 52-unit, three-story structure only had sprinklers installed in a newer wing of the home. Quebec law does not require sprinkler systems in residences where the occupants have some mobility.

A fraction of the residents at Residence du Havre were wheelchair-bound and suffered from diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Prior to the fire, a government committee had been studying the issue of mandating sprinklers.

"If they recommend to us to change the rules, to change the laws and implement (mandatory) sprinklers, we will do that," Marois told reporters.

Roch Bernier, co-owner of the senior residence, also attended Sunday’s Mass. The congregation gave him a standing ovation, Reuters reported.

Mathieu Belanger / Reuters

Police officers walk past the Residence du Havre after a fire in L'Isle Verte, Quebec, on Jan. 23, 2014.

"I come to you with a heart full of emotion and at the same time enormous suffering,” he told the mourners, saying he considered the residents to be part of his family.

Bernier also called on people not to look for blame.

"Let us find out what we can to do to help each other," he said before returning to his seat, barely able to choke back tears.

Of the 10 bodies recovered from the site, at least three have been identified, officials said.

The persistent sub-zero temperatures and wind-driven snow made initial rescue efforts difficult, as firefighters’ hoses froze and layers of ice cocooned the structure.

Special teams of police, firefighters and coroner’s office officials, braving the biting cold, have been using steam and hot air to melt thick ice encasing the bodies of victims in the burned ruins of the residence.

Police overnight said crews would focus on melting the ice, with one set of specialists continuing to attack it while the other would look for the remains of victims.

The town had a high in the 20s on Sunday, but the temperature was expected to plummet to below zero by nightfall.

"We are working stubbornly and rigorously to establish the cause and circumstances of this fire while preserving the integrity of the potential victims," Quebec police spokesman Michel Brunet told reporters as night fell on Saturday.

Despite media reports alleging a cigarette ignited the inferno, police say they still do not know the cause.

The son of the man whose room may be the origin of the fire told reporters that he doesn’t believe his dad, a smoker, would have snuck a cigarette. The fire was reported around 12:30 a.m. ET.

"It’s going to be a terrible burden if it turns out he started the fire, but I don’t believe it," son Jean-André Michaud told The Globe and Mail. "I just don’t believe it. He was not that big a smoker to get up in the middle of the night to light up."

His father, 96-year-old Paul-Étienne Michaud, is believed to have perished in the blaze.

Local priest Gilles Frigon said his church wanted to help rebuild the hearts of the community with the Mass.

“We celebrate with them but when they suffer, we suffer,” he told reporters tearfully on Saturday. A larger public mass is due to be held in the town on Feb. 1.

The disaster looks set to be the second worst to hit a Canadian seniors’ home after a 1969 blaze in Quebec that killed 54 people.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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