L'ISLE-VERTE, Quebec — A fire raged through a seniors' home in eastern Quebec on Thursday, trapping residents dependent on wheelchairs and walkers. Five died, about 30 were missing and Canada's prime minister said there is little doubt the death toll will be high.
Officials said firefighters saw and heard people in the building that they were unable to save.
Many of those unaccounted for were confined to wheelchairs and walkers and only five residents in the center were fully autonomous, said Ginette Caron, acting mayor of the small town of L'Isle-Verte, about 140 miles northeast of Quebec City. She said some had Alzheimer's disease.
The massive fire in the three-story building broke out about 12:30 a.m. and raged through the night. Firefighters arrived within eight minutes of getting the alarm and several fire departments in the region were called in to help. But they were unable to carry out a complete evacuation because of the intensity of the fire. About 20 of the more than 50 residents were transported to safety.
Pascal Fillion, who lives near the seniors' home, said he ran outside to find a group of locals and firefighters already at the scene, trying everything to save the panicked people inside.
For the most part, he said, rescuers felt helpless against a fast-moving blaze with smoke so thick it was nearly impossible to approach the building.
"People tried to do whatever they could, but the fire was so intense that there wasn't much that could be done," he said. "I saw people crying, I saw people collapse because they were watching those people burn."
The fire broke out in minus-4 F temperatures, causing equipment to freeze, fire chief Yvan Charron said.
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.
The search for the missing was still hampered Thursday evening by the cold and thick ice and the fact that the building had collapsed, said Quebec Provincial police Lt. Guy Lapointe. Lapointe said late Thursday that the search for those missing would regroup at daylight.