L’ISLE VERTE, Quebec — At least three people died and 30 were missing after a fire ripped through a wooden, three-story residence for the elderly in the Eastern Canadian province of Quebec overnight, police said on Thursday.
Fanned by high winds, the fire engulfed an older section of the Residence du Havre in the small community of L’Isle-Verte on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River about 140 miles northeast of Quebec City. The building only had a partial sprinkler system, according to a document filed by the residence.
Acting Mayor Ginette Caron said many of the residents had used wheelchairs or walkers, while some had Alzheimer’s disease.
According to a document filed with the Quebec health ministry, the residence was home to 52 people, 37 of whom were 85 or older. It had a maximum capacity of 60 people.
The fire broke out shortly after midnight and was extinguished about five hours later. At midday, clouds of smoke were still billowing from the residence, more than half of which was burned to the ground.
Eyewitness Pascal Fillion told public broadcaster RDI that at 1 a.m. a large part of the building was already on fire, due in part to the high winds.
“There was one person we saw, who they wanted to save, but he was on the top floor, and with the fire and the wind they weren’t able to come any closer,” Fillion said.
Video footage of the blaze showed huge sheets of flame leaping into the air.
Police told reporters at noon that they still had not been able to get into the ruins. They kept media some 80 yards from the scene.
Undamaged parts of the building were covered in icicles and thick sheets of ice, testament to temperatures that dropped as low as minus 7.6 degrees.
“Right now 30 people are missing. Three are confirmed dead,” Quebec police spokeswoman Ann Mathieu said during a televised briefing.
“That does not necessarily mean 30 people have lost their lives. It’s possible that some were relocated with other people. Some might be away with their families,” she said.
The document filed with the Quebec health ministry said the residence had a partial sprinkler system. The residence’s website said it had a sprinkler system but gave no details.
RDI and the Globe and Mail newspaper said Plomberie St-Pie-X, Inc., a plumbing company, had installed sprinklers in the newer part of the building when it was renovated in the early 2000s.
“The section that burned was not protected by a sprinkler system,” Plomberie St-Pie-X, Inc. co-owner Etienne Desjardins told RDI. Desjardins did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Reuters was not immediately able to contact Roch Bernier or Irene Plante, listed as the owners of the residence.
In Quebec there is no requirement for the owners of seniors’ residences of three stories or less to fit their buildings with sprinklers. Instead, they must install smoke detectors and prepare an evacuation plan in case of fire.
Jean-Pierre Ouellet of the FTQ labor union told RDI that regulations for seniors’ homes were not strict enough.
The residence’s website says the building was built in 1997 and expanded in 2002, and that it had sections for people who were independent and semi-independent, and for those who needed more assistance.
The ambulance service said 13 people had been taken to hospital. Public broadcaster RDI said a further 16 had been transported to other locations.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois said she was “deeply saddened” by the tragedy and sent several government ministers to the site to offer assistance.
One man described to RDI how his grandmother had called for help from a second-floor balcony and said efforts to reach her by ladder failed. “She died on the balcony,” he said, his voice breaking.
Last July, 47 people died when a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in the middle of the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, about 250 miles southwest of the site of Thursday’s fire.
According to Canadian Press, the worst ever fire in a Canadian nursing home occurred in Notre-Dame-du-Lac, Quebec in 1969, when 54 people died.