As authorities searched the icy rubble of an old-age home that burned nearly to the ground early January 23, looking for as many as 30 missing people, evidence began pointing to an illicit cigarette as the cause of the blaze.
Five of the residents, many of whom were over 85 and dependent on walkers or wheelchairs to get around, were known to have died. Some were afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, the Associated Press and other media outlets reported.
The 52-room Résidence du Havre was enveloped in wind-whipped flames in as little as 30 minutes in the early hours of Thursday January 23 in the 1,500-population town of L’Isle-Verte, about 140 miles northeast of Quebec City. Bystanders and rescuers tried to get the residents out, but could not get past the raging blaze to free many of them. Twenty residents were rescued, but at least eight died, according to an Associated Press report. Authorities were hoping that at least some of the 30 missing residents were off-site with family when the blaze occurred.
Only one-third of the building—the one with a modern sprinkler system installed and working—survived, according to The Globe and Mail. Two days later, debris still smoldered under the ice that encased the scene after the thousands of gallons of water used to fight the fire froze. Rescuers melted the ice with steam to search for victims.
Citing reports from the Quebecor news agency, The Globe and Mail said authorities suspect that one of the residents may have been smoking in his room.
Queen Elizabeth II sent a personal statement of condolence as plans were made for a memorial service to be held on Sunday January 26 at the St-Jean Baptist de L’Isle Verte cathedral, whose parish priest, Father Gilles Frigon, often visited the home to conduct services, The Globe and Mail recounted.
“Prince Philip and I were saddened to learn of the serious fire at the seniors' (residence in L'Isle-Verts, Quebec yesterday,” said the Queen. “The Duke of Edinburgh and I send our sympathy to the families of those who have died and our thoughts and prayers to all those who have been injured in this terrible event.”
The tragedy was in stark counterpoint to that of Lac-Mégantic, in which 47 people were killed when a runaway train smashed into the town center over the summer. Though the cause of the senior-home fire was different, it too has devastated the small town, where most people knew the residents of the home well.
“In Mégantic, they lost youth and the future. Here, it’s age, it’s wisdom and it’s history. These people were our reference books. They kept us in touch with our past,” said Marielle Marquise, a retired schoolteacher and lay minister at the town’s cathedral, to The Globe and Mail.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper also sent a condolence message.
“On behalf of the entire country, I offer my sincere condolences to the family and friends of those who passed away following the fire at a seniors' residence in eastern Quebec last night,” he said on Thursday morning. “My thoughts and prayers are also with those who remain unaccounted for, and all those who have been injured. I want to thank the firefighters and first responders on the scene who acted quickly, particularly in these harsh weather conditions, to assist those in need.”
But such missives were small salve to a town immersed in shock and grief.
One man recounted to The Globe and Mail the sight of one of his neighbors trying to rescue his 88-year-old mother from a third-floor balcony. Though he put a ladder by the side of the building, he could not get to her, said Mario Michaud, who lives across the street.
“He couldn’t reach her,” Michaud told the newspaper. “She burned on the balcony. Her boy, he broke down. It wasn’t pretty.”