L’ISLE-VERTE, Que. — Barely six months after Canadians were shocked by the Lac-Megantic train disaster, another tiny Quebec town found itself waiting to learn how many people it had lost after fire ripped through a seniors’ residence Thursday.
And just like in Lac-Megantic, tragedy struck shortly after midnight.
The unsuspecting community this time was L’Isle-Verte, a town of only 1,500 people in Quebec’s scenic Lower St. Lawrence.
As firefighters doused the towering flames, grim-faced provincial police confirmed that three people were dead and another 30 were missing.
Many of the residents were over 85 and all but a handful had limited movement, being confined to wheelchairs and walkers.
The bitterly cold temperatures contrasted with the roaring flames that illuminated the night sky as firefighters poured gallons of water on the burning building.
As morning dawned and the fire was brought under control, the burned section of the facility resembled a macabre ice palace, with sheets of ice and thick icicles covering the structure.
Town official Ginette Caron said only five residents in the 52-unit centre were fully mobile.
“The rest were semi-autonomous, practically no longer autonomous,” Caron told a news conference. “Wheelchairs, walkers, people who can’t move around. People with Alzheimer’s, in the last stages of life.”
At least three people were injured, although the extent of their injuries was unclear.
Early Thursday afternoon, Quebec provincial police were encouraging relatives of the residents to meet with them at a local school to help in their investigation. A local church had also been opened for those who wanted to pray.
A stricken Jacques Berube stood outside the residence as he pondered the fate of his missing 99-year-old mother, Adrienne Dube.
Berube, 70, tried to locate her at a hospital in nearby Riviere-du-Loup as well as at a school in L’Isle-Verte, where residents were initially taken.
Berube was getting ready to hear the worst about his mother, who is blind but still mobile.
“I went near the building; the corner where her room was is burned,” he said. “I’ll just have to wait and see. I don’t like it. But I don’t have any choice. It’s just reality.”
Mario Michaud, who lives across the street from the building, said he witnessed the drama unfold shortly after midnight.
“I got up to go to the toilet and I saw smoke,” Michaud told local newspaper Info Dimanche.
“The fire had started on the second floor. I woke up my girlfriend and called 911. I saw the firefighters and they got to work.
“A woman on the second floor was shouting and she went out on to the balcony. Her son went to get a ladder but he couldn’t get to her. She burned to death.”
Local chief firefighter Yvon Charron called it “a night from hell.”
Provincial police Sgt. Ann Mathieu said the fact 30 people are missing does not necessarily mean they are all dead.
“Some people may have gone elsewhere and there may have been people staying with family,” Mathieu said.