L'ISLE-VERTE, Quebec (AP) — Fire raged through a seniors' residence in eastern Quebec on Thursday morning, killing three people and leaving about 30 unaccounted for. Officials fear the death toll will climb and said firefighters couldn't save people they saw and heard.
Acting mayor Ginette Caron said many of those unaccounted for were confined to wheelchairs and walkers, noting that only five residents in the center were fully autonomous. She said some had Alzheimer's disease.
The massive fire in the 52-unit complex broke out around 12:30 a.m. ET in L'Isle-Verte, a small town of 1,500 people about 140 miles (225 kilometers) northeast of Quebec City.
"About 31 people are on the list of people that Quebec police are looking for. This is very bad news because they have challenges moving around," said Francois Lapointe, the member of Parliament for the area.
"We're down to hoping that some of those 31 people were not there. ... The volunteer firefighters did everything they could. They basically couldn't save some people they could hear or see," he said. Lapointe said one man could see his mother on a balcony but could not rescue her.
Another man, 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."
Lapointe said it will take about two or three hours for officials to go through what's left of the gutted building.
Initial reports said 20 residents had been transported to safety, but it was unclear just how many residents were missing in the inferno. Quebec Provincial police Sgt. Ann Mathieu urged people who have any information on people considered missing to call police.
Mario Michaud, who lives across the street from the building, said he witnessed the unfolding drama 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."
At least three people were injured in the blaze. The extent of their injuries was unclear.
The building was home to more than 50 people and also housed a social agency, a pharmacy and a hair salon.
The center — the Residence du Havre — opened in 1997. A Quebec Health Department document updated last July said the three-storey building, with one elevator, was constructed entirely of wood.
Most residents were older than 75 and 37 of them were older than 85. The building included both single rooms and apartment-style dwellings. The document also indicates the building was only partially fitted with a sprinkler system but did have a fire alarm. There were smoke detectors in every room and in the building itself.
The same document indicates that two employees tend to work overnight during the week.
Several fire departments in the region were called in to help extinguish the blaze, which completely destroyed the building.
The fire comes just six months after 47 people were killed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, when a train with 72 oil tankers derailed and exploded in the small community.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper a statement offering his condolences on behalf of the entire country.
In 1969, a nursing home fire in the community of Notre-Dame-du-Lac, Quebec, claimed 54 lives.
Associated Press Writer Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report