L’ISLE-VERTE, Quebec (AP) – The official death toll from a fire that roared through a Quebec seniors’ residence last week climbed to 14 on Monday as emergency workers continued to comb through the ice-covered rubble.
Quebec provincial police also said 18 people were still missing and presumed dead after the fifth day of the excruciating recovery effort.
Police and firefighters used special machines that pump out hot air to melt thick ice coating the ruins.
The work has been slow and painstaking, with workers being given periodic breaks as they brave bitterly cold temperatures and strong winds in L’Isle-Verte, a town 140 miles (225 kilometers) northeast of Quebec City.
The fire broke out shortly after midnight Thursday and spread quickly through the 52-unit residence. Many of the elderly occupants had limited mobility and needed canes, wheelchairs or walkers to get around. One woman was reportedly blind.
Some relatives who raced to the scene to help out said they saw their family members die as they pleaded for help from balconies.
Provincial police say they have interviewed about 100 witnesses. There were media reports that the fire began in the room of a resident who was smoking a cigarette, but police said that was just one possibility among many. No exact cause of the fire has yet been determined.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed Monday that Harper will attend a commemorative ceremony in L’Isle-Verte this Saturday.
About 20 health professionals are also making the rounds in L’Isle-Verte, talking to townsfolk to make sure they are OK. They will also be checking in with children in the local schools.
“I am appalled by what has happened,” Quebec Health Minister Rejean Hebert said. “It’s a catastrophe that makes me relive Lac-Megantic. These are the sort of disasters we never like to see and which are extremely sad.”
Last July, 47 people were killed in Lac-Megantic when a runaway train loaded with fuel derailed and exploded, devastating the town’s core.
In Quebec City, opposition Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard said there should be a public inquiry into the L’Isle-Verte tragedy.
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