Canadian firefighters are searching for 30 missing elderly after a fire burned down a Quebec retirement home. Police have already confirmed five fatalities, with the prime minister saying a high death toll is expected.
Rescue personnel were working through the burnt rubble of a three-story retirement home in L'Isle-Verte, Quebec early Friday searching for trapped residents who were dependent on wheelchairs and walkers.
The fire broke out early Thursday morning in an older section of the home, located around 140 miles (225 kilomters) north of Quebec City. The building reportedly had only a partial sprinkler system. Firefighters fought for five hours in freezing temperatures to extinguish the blaze, which was fanned by winds of up to 70 kilometers per hour (43.4 mph).
Weather hampers search
The ensuing search was slowed by as much as 30 centimeters (a foot) of ice, which covered the remains of the Residence du Havre after water firefighters sprayed on the fire froze. Rescue workers had said they planned to continue their search into Friday if necessary.
"The problem we face now is the weather conditions," Quebec police spokesman Guy Lapointe told reporters. "To fight the fire, water had to be used, and that water has frozen.
"In the next few hours, if all goes well, we'll begin to work on the scene and, if the lighting we've brought in allows it, the objective is to work through the night," Lapointe added.
The 52-unit home housed 50-60 elderly people, half of them older than 85 years old. Firefighters arrived shortly after the fire broke out, but were only able to get around 20 residents to safety due to the intensity of the blaze. Police confirmed five people were killed.
"It was a total fire," said L'Iles-Verte fire chief Yvan Charron.
The town's acting Mayor Ginette Caron said most of those in the home are reliant on caregivers, "almost all in wheelchairs, using walkers, or … aren't mobile at all, people suffering from the late stages of Alzheimer's."
"We can keep some hope for those unaccounted for, but there's very little doubt that the loss of life is considerable," said Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Quebec Minister Gaetan Lelievre told Radio-Canada the fire was "a tragedy for the community" and said "we can only fear that the death toll will rise."
A 1969 fire at a retirement home in Notre-Dame-du-Lac, Quebec killed 54 people.
dr/hc (AFP, Reuters, AP)