L’ISLE-VERTE, Quebec — High winds and driving snow forced Quebec police on Sunday to suspend their search for bodies in the ice-clad ruins of a seniors’ residence following a fire that authorities now believe killed 32 people.
Specialist teams at the site of Thursday’s blaze in the small town of L’Isle-Verte worked through the night, using steam and a machine blowing hot air in a bid to melt ice that in some places was two feet thick.
But with winds battering the canvas tents erected on the site and thick snow blocking out the searchlights, police decided early on Sunday they could not go on. Temperatures hovered around minus 14 C (7 degrees Fahrenheit).
“The difficult weather conditions have forced us to temporarily suspend the search,” the provincial Surete du Quebec police force said in a statement.
L’Isle-Verte, some 140 miles northeast of Quebec City, was due to hold a memorial service starting at 2 p.m. EST on Sunday, for those who died when the three-storey wooden building erupted into flames.
Despite media reports alleging a cigarette ignited the blaze early on Thursday, police say they still do not know the cause.
Ten bodies have been recovered and 22 people are still missing in the frozen ruins of the Residence du Havre in the town of 1,500 people, situated on the St. Lawrence River and 40 miles north of Maine.
The memorial service will be led by local priest Gilles Frigon, who said the church wanted to help rebuild the hearts of the community.
“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.
Before the search was suspended police had said the teams on site would split into two groups on Sunday, with one set of specialists continuing to attack the ice while the other would look for the remains of victims.
“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.
The disaster looks set to be the second-worst to hit a Canadian seniors’ home after a 1969 blaze in Quebec killed 54 people.
Only part of the residence was equipped with sprinklers. Quebec law does not require sprinkler systems in residences where the occupants have some mobility.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois cut short a visit to Europe and plans to be present at the service to mark the province’s second calamity in a matter of months.
In July 2013, a runaway tanker train carrying light crude from North Dakota’s Bakken region derailed and exploded in the heart of the town of Lac Megantic, Quebec, killing 47.
Brunet said that while he appreciated locals were impatient to know what had happened, it could take months to determine the cause of the fire.
Firefighters poured an enormous quantity of water on the residence in the early hours of Thursday, when temperatures hovered around minus 22 Celsius (minus 8 Fahrenheit), which rapidly froze.
Specialists are working inside canvas tents to help concentrate the heat on the ice.
“Sixty centimeters of ice obviously takes a long time to melt naturally and in the temperatures we have now, that’s not going to happen at all. So the equipment and covers we have will enable us to progress a lot more rapidly,” said Brunet.